Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Detroit Lions used to be an NFL Power! No. I'm not kidding.

Yes, I know, very hard to fathom. But back in the 1950s they won championships against the vaunted Paul Brown led Cleveland Browns. Behold the glory days (thanks to the blog Pride of the Detroit):

Bobby Lane leads the Lions to victory in 1952, on the road in Cleveland

And again, in 1953. This set lacks the 'production' of the 52 set, and is black and white and silent, but includes every play of the game. A bare bones version, but great view of the field and formations. Arm-chair strategists enjoy. Home game, Briggs Stadium!

Structures of Mutual Promise- Objections:

Continuing a series of posts. This is the 6th or 7th....

Can this quasi-contractual theory account for all moral obligations? At first glance, it seems unlikely. A simple example:

Obligations to non-human animals: Most would agree that a person who inflicts pain on a dog just for fun is doing something morally wrong. Is there any plausible sense in which there is an implicit mutual promise being violated here? Isn’t it much simpler to say, as was said earlier, that the simple fact that such behavior knowingly inflicts pain on the animal is what makes for its moral repugnance?

Perhaps, but I would emphasize here this word “knowing,” and venture a conjectural explanation of how its use evidences something like an implicit promise at the core of our intuitions here as to the evil nature of such behavior:

When we say that a person’s “knowingly” doing (x) is what makes his actions bad, we have to ask just what we mean by this word. I think the answer runs something like this: We knowingly do something to a sentient creature when, before we undertake the action, we have considered the action, its harms or benefits for that creature, and are aware of how the harms and benefits will be taken by the creature. Now, to do this requires that we are able to place ourselves in the ‘shoes’ of that other creature, at least to some extent, and conceptualize what it would be like to be on the receiving end of the treatment. Having done that exercise, we then move to action. That, in a nutshell, is acting in a ‘knowing’ fashion.

What does that entail for the theory? When we approach such empathetic tasks there is always an implicit question we answer; how would I like it if I was this creature and was treated in this way? Now, normal human beings will tend to answer this implicit question in uniform ways. If the received action is beneficial, they will (to coin an ugly phrase) ‘counterfactually acquiesce’ in the treatment, something analogous to “agreeing” to the treatment. If the action harms, just as obviously, they will not ‘counterfactually acquiesce’ to being so treated. That is something like withholding consent.

There is something like our structure of mutual promise in all this. Through the mechanism of counterfactual hypothesis we conceptualize the dog ‘as if’ it was capable of giving something like consent to the treatment, and through that conceptualization, we give an account of our own ‘knowing’ behavior. We place ourselves as proxies in such cases.

From this, there is some sort of way to create a quasi-contractarian account of the moral status of actions toward non-human animals. How we treat them is a complex result of our purposes in using (or interacting with) them, and our empathetic ‘read’ as to their well-being vis-à-vis our human purposes. When we see that our purposes tend to conflict with their well-being, we tend to think, in so far as that conflict exists, our treatment of the animals is morally wrong. When we see that our purposes do not conflict with their well-being, or further their well-being, we tend to think, in so far as the conflict does not exist, or positive alignment exists, our treatment of the animals is morally permissible, perhaps obligatory.

This brings up rather obvious problem cases for this view; Human use of animals for food, medical research and other purposes. One might thing that the account here would render such human use of animals immoral in a rather straightforward way: The animals obviously would not consent to the treatment. We are capable of seeing this by proxy, by exercise of empathy; in fact it should be obvious. It follows upon even a rudimentary exercise of empathy, that we clearly do wrong in using animals for food and medical research aimed ultimately at human well-being. There is no ambiguity in the case.

But, things are not that simple to most people who carefully consider human use of animals. Now, unless such folks are mistaken, this seems fatal to the view being developed here. There a glaring mismatch between normal intuitions and the deducible consequences of the theory. So much the worse for the theory.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Consider this hypothetical situation. On planet X there are two species, both like the human species psychologically. Now unfortunately for both, evolutionary history has played a cruel joke. One species is carnivorous, and like the Panda here on Earth, can only survive on one source of meat. You guessed it; they must eat the second species. Not only that, they must eat them freshly killed. For some complex bio-chemical reason, they cannot do anything else and hope to survive.

Call the carnivores the ‘cat people’ and the second species the ‘mouse people.’ Is it morally impermissible for the cat people to do what they do? Well, it is necessary for survival. Given that is the case, I think most of our intuitions would tend toward a “yes” answer to that question. We might say that it is an ugly business, but morally permissible given the necessity.

But, one might say, with our theory squarely in mind, ‘surely the mouse people never consent to being hunted, killed and consumed. Just as surely, the cat people, because they are like us, can exercise their empathetic abilities and see that the mouse people would never acquiesce in the treatment. So, it follows that the contract-theoretic account would conflict with our intuitions in this case. So, that’s a strike against it. At best it can account for the moral status of only some actions. At the very least it cannot account for the moral permissibility of some actions on planet X.’

Of this I am not quite sure: Put yourself in the place of a cat person who is contemplating life from the point of view of a mouse person. What might he think? Suppose also, that he is able to bracket his own obvious self-interest as he carries out this empathetic exercise.

Is it too far outside the realm of plausibility to assume the results would be something like this?
‘I certainly do not want to be captured and killed, yet, I do see that the cat people are being compelled by the direst of necessity in doing what they do. If I were in their shoes I too would probably do as they do. So, while I do not agree to being hunted and killed, I at least understand. But, I go further than merely understanding. I admit I would also undertake the ‘ugly business’ in order to feed family, and self, and preserve the species, if I were in similar circumstances.’

If it seems unlikely that a cat person would think this way, I do have evidence that a disinterested third person perspective would yield such results! What is more, it is plausible that this line of thought would occur to a mouse person on planet X.

Thinking about this result from the point of view of contract theory we can say this: While this plausible line of empathetic reasoning is not tantamount to an agreement, it is a sort of proxy ‘acquiescence’ or ‘acceptance,’ in some sense of those two words, and is close enough in resemblance to serve as a contract-theoretic basis for an account of the moral permissibility of the actions of the cat people. Not only that, it does not take too much more counterfactual thinking to see that there are certain moral obligations that must be met in carrying out the ‘ugly business,’ as for instance, making the killing as painless and quick as possible.

Going further and bringing things back here to Earth: Something like this line of reasoning would not only account for the psychological fact that human beings think that they have moral obligations toward non-human animals they use, despite their also believing that they are morally OK in using them; but it would also serve as basis of an account of the complexity and nature of such obligations.

This raises interesting questions with regard to human use of non-human animals:

In cases where there is something less than the ‘dire necessity’ of the hypothetical case of the cat people, can it still be the case that the creatures that do the consuming are still morally OK in doing so? How would proxy reasoning answer this?

In particular, if it is the case (as I believe it is) that a diet that excludes animal products is on the whole significantly more risky for human beings when compared with a diet that does include animal products, does the existence of this risk give us moral permission to continue in our omnivorous ways, and if so, under what sorts of strictures?

What exactly does our theoretical approach tell us with regard to husbandry and farming practices of human beings when raising animals for consumption?

How exactly does sentience level of animal species figure into the restrictions on our practices with regard to them? How does the theory flesh this out (pun intended.)

These I leave for future work.

For now though, an obvious theoretical objection: In the cases just discussed, (the planet X case, and the case of human use of terrestrial animals,) use is made of the empathetic abilities of agents, and it does not appear that there is anything closely resembling the promise-in-action of the previous discussion. Remembering the earlier illustrative case of two kids on the playground sharing the fruits of cooperative work, we could plausibly argue that by virtue of taking part in the cooperative enterprise the two undertook a collective intention, at the heart of which is a sort of mutual promise. No such relationship can be said to exist between cat/mouse people, or inter-specifically, in the case of human beings and food animals. In the former case, for obvious reasons, in the latter, because the animals simply lack the capacity for such conceptions. And, even if they did, they, like the mouse people, would certainly not consent!

Instead, the argument has had to rely on ‘proxy’ counterfactual relationships, i.e., the predator species’ psychological ability to conjure up empathetic pictures of how it must be from the other side.

Now, if there must be an actual mutual promise-in-action, in order for there to be an actual moral obligation, then it follows there is no moral obligation here, for one party in particular (the victim party) in no way acts in such a way as to be plausibly interpreted as entering into an implicit promise with the other party.

This sounds more damaging than it is. For the theory is a theory of human moral responsibility. Actions and practices can only have moral significance for creatures psychologically like us, as was established earlier. And, as also noted earlier, if acts take on moral significance for us because we have certain psychological capabilities that render us able to cognize moral realities through ‘proxying’, then, whether or not other creatures are capable of cognizing them is utterly beside the point.

To apply this to our case of the dog torturer; it does not matter for purposes of making the case that the act is wrong for a human being, that the dog itself cannot enter into any kind of collective intention, or implicit mutual promise with the human being, but it does matter a great deal that the human being can, by proxy, adopt the viewpoint of the dog. In fact this exactly constitutes or makes possible the fact that for that human being, the torture is wrong. The ability to counterfactually discover the fact that the dog would be distressed is what makes the human being a creature that is able to cognize the moral facts of the case. It is therefore also this fact that makes human beings morally responsible. If there were a world in which non-sentient automata inflicted pain on animals, nothing wrong would be going on. No, in order for wrongs to occur, knowing actions must occur. For knowing actions to occur, ‘proxying’ must occur. Actions are not ‘wrong in themselves’ but wrong when undertaken by creatures of sufficient psychological complexity.

This fact is also the fact that makes it the case that the cat people have obligations to the mouse people, even if they are morally permitted to hunt them. They can delineate those responsibilities by use of empathetic reasoning. All of this is the case even though there are certainly no implicit mutual promises-in-action between the two species.

Children and adult humans that do not have the requisite psychological abilities cannot be morally responsible. They cannot be moral agents. This does not imply though that they should not be compelled to behave in certain ways, or restrained to prevent harm to others.

All of this is to say the moral properties are supervenient upon intentional relationships between sentient beings possessed of sufficient psychological complexity and other sentient entities. So, morality is a creature of collective intention even if in some case, by proxy.