Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Eating meat is probably one of the most normal things to do.  For most people, when a piece of pork chop is laid in front of a hungry recipient, very little thought goes into the moral aspects of such a meal.  From pre-historic cavemen, to hunter-gatherers, to present day Homo-sapiens; the majority of us participate either directly or indirectly in the slaughtering of animals.  The obvious question now is whether or not we are being immoral for killing animals for the sole purpose of consuming their meat.  My stance on this matter is yes, the slaughtering of animals is an immoral act.  The aim of this essay is to critically examine the arguments and counter-arguments made to support either side of the coin, and highlight the successes and pitfalls of each.  However, it must be noted that the heart of this discussion does not rest on pain and suffering, but rather the killing of animals.  The assumption here is that free range animals are terminated painlessly without any form of torture or maltreatment.  In Tom Regan’s words, “What is wrong isn’t the pain, the suffering, the deprivation.  It is the fundamental wrong that allows us to view animals as our resources” (1985:379).  The crux of this essay, therefore, focuses on the rights of animals – more specifically, their rights to life.

There are several avenues along which to investigate the matter.  Firstly, let us look at the interest of animals, paying particular attention to those of mammals.  Mammals, as opposed to the less developed species such as insects, strongly resemble humans in that they have a central nervous system that enables them to experience similar feelings as homo-sapiens.  This particular trait is crucial in connection to the discussion at hand because the following arguments rely on this fact to succeed.  Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, writes that species across the spectrum do not require identical treatment (e.g. giving a dog important decision making tasks), but equal consideration (i.e. giving them the same regard as we give to humans).  The reason is that the difference in treatment is only justified insofar as there is some relevant difference between two subjects (Singer, 1990:363).  Animals eat, breathe, and sleep.  They have the capacity for the enjoyment of pleasure and the suffering of pain.  Therefore, like humans, animals are sentient beings that have interests in their own well-being.  The fact that animals lack advanced cognitive capacity or social structure is irrelevant because there are certain members of the human race (e.g. babies) who lack the same advancements but are nevertheless, moral recipients who should be protected from wrongful harm.  The logical follow up would be to not kill animals for their meat, the same way we would not kill a human for their meat.

However, Raymond Frey raises an objection to Peter Singer’s equal consideration argument on the basis that animals lack interests in the relevant sense (1979).  To elaborate: Frey distinguishes between interest as a well-being, versus interest as a want.  Everything, regardless of its nature, purpose or position, has an interest in well-being.  For example, in the case of valuable artefacts such as relics and ancient manuscripts, it is in their interest not to be damaged, but it would be absurd to infer moral rights on them because they are not logical subjects of rights (Frey, 1979).  So, while it is true that it is in animals’ interests not to be killed off, it is not sufficient enough to grant them any moral rights.  The second case of interest deals with wants and desires.  The question here is whether or not animals have desires to stay alive.  Frey links desires to beliefs and remarks that “having beliefs is not compatible with the absence of language and linguistic ability (1979).  This claim is problematic on two counts.  Firstly, while animals are unable to express their wants as clearly as humans, they nevertheless are able to demonstrate their feelings through sounds, facial expressions, body movements, et cetera.  Animals protest to being captured; they also show clear signs of distress prior to the slaughtering.  This demonstrates their want to continue living.  Thus, human language is not the only indicator for one’s desires.  Secondly, pre-linguistic babies and severely retarded humans also lack the ability to use language as a medium of communication.  However, that does not strip them of their moral entitlements.  No one is allowed to kill off unwanted or problematic humans, and proceed to feed on their vulnerabilities.  If a cannibal decides to capture, kill, and eat babies that have not yet developed the capacity to express their desires, the cannibal would be committing a moral offense.

Staying on the point of desires, or the lack thereof, one might then argue pre-linguistic humans are not completely without desires per se, as they have parents, guardians or others to look after and express interests on their behalf, which then catapults them back on the list of subjects who are capable of desiring.  The human race in general, is well regarded.  Even someone who is completely alone will have some humanitarian organisation or church to oversee his or her survival and well-being.  In this case, animals are not completely without desires either, because animal rights activists act as agents for those animals the same way parents act as agents for their offsprings.  Animas’ lack of communicative skills and their lack of desires, as proposed by Frey, are therefore not sufficient enough to prevent them from receiving considerable moral treatments (Benatar, 2009).

The next prevalent argument in determining the rights of animals is the contractarian argument.  In layman’s terms, it is a view whereby “animals are not party to the social contract that imposes moral rules on us and thus we cannot owe them anything directly” (Benatar, 1992:378).  This is the orthodox approach adopted by John Rawls which grants indirect duties to animals, but not direct ones.  The difference between the two lies in the fact that direct duties are owed to the animals whereas indirect duties are those that involve animals (Rawls, 1971).  To further illustrate the point: if someone tortures your pet, a wrong would have been done to you (the owner) but no wrong would be extended to the pet itself.  Such a belief is effected by the reasoning that animals are not rational agents and so…human beings are the sole bearers of direct moral status; therefore, animals cannot have any moral standing under the contractarian view guided by Rawls (Carruthers, 1991:98-99).  The Rawlsian contract fails to assign direct moral rights to non-rational agents, of which animals are a subset.

Mark Rowlands however, rejects the widely held belief that only rational agents have moral status.  In his claim, he states:

“The fact that the framers of the contract must be conceived of as rational agents does not entail that the recipients of the contract, that is, the individuals protected by the principles of morality embodied in the contract, must be rational agents.  If a contractarian position is consistently applied, the recipients of protection offered by the contract must include not only rational, but also non-rational agents.” (1997).

In other words, although animals are non-rational and therefore, not moral agents, they nevertheless, are moral recipients to which moral rights should be assigned.  Secondly, if the terms of the contract extend moral status only to rational agents as Rawls intended, then that would exclude all animals as well as all non-rational humans (Rowlands, 1997).  Marginal humans, as coined by Tom Regan, refer to those humans such as babies, the mentally retarded, the severely demented, and others who are incapable of making rational decisions by themselves.  If we agree to involve marginal humans in the social-moral-contract, we have no sound reason to bar animals from taking part in the said contract (1985:15-26).

Another way to test whether or not animals should have rights to life is through analysing the concept of original position (Rawls, 1971).  Basically, what this means is that the contract should be set up by people who are not privy to information regarding their personal traits and attributes.  To branch this out further, the contract-setters can also be stripped of the information regarding their species.  In other words, they have no ways of knowing whether they are animals or homo-sapiens.  The contractors, as explained by Rowlands, “while having knowledge of all general truths of psychology, sociology, economics and so on, are denied all knowledge of particular facts about themselves and their circumstances” (1997).  These people are said to be in their original positions.  Such a notion exists purely for the purpose of testing for fairness (Benatar, 2009).  In order to not fall on the short stick on things, the contract must be drawn in such a way as to fairly represent all species and so, whatever terms they decide to put in the contract have to include both humans and animals.

This leaves us with one final argument proposed by Jordan Curnutt.  This alternative contestation avoids all of the traditional arguments, that is, those that involve rights based theories, or the utilitarian approach.  Curnutt focuses on killing, and the degree to which it causes harm. His establishment can be summarised in five logical steps:

1.      Causing harm is prima facie [as it seems at first sight] morally wrong.

2.      Killing animals causes them harm.

3.      Therefore, killing animals is prima facie morally wrong.

4.       Animal-eating requires the killing of animals.

5.      Therefore, animal-eating is prima facie morally wrong (Curnutt, 1997:409).

Prima facie, in this context, refers to something (in this case, it is the wrongness of causing harm) that may be over-ridden or bypassed in certain cases.  For example, Curnutt’s prima facie view allows the consumption of animals that have died due to natural causes or methods that do not incorporate any deliberation of moral agents.  Furthermore, he states that killing is the worst form of harm anyone, be it human or animal, can undergo as it undermines a being’s interest and/or desires (1997:417).  This might seem an obvious claim but it nevertheless needs elaboration.  Joel Feinberg’s definition of harm connects it to a setback of interest.  The most important interest that a being can have is what he calls “welfare interests”, that is:   “…the interests in the continuance for a foreseeable interval of one’s life, the interests in one’s own physical health and vigor…a tolerable social and physical environment, and a certain amount of freedom from interference and coercion” (Feinberg, 1980:410).  From this, we can extrapolate that welfare interests are of utmost importance because we cannot achieve any other interest if our welfare interests are not realized.  Once an animal is dead, it certainly cannot pursue any of its interests, and it therefore constitutes as severe harm.  Curnutt thereby concludes that killing and eating animals is prima facie morally wrong (1997:410).

So far, we have established three main factors.  First and foremost, animals are biologically equipped with similar receptors as humans which enable them to feel, and to enjoy life.  They have desires and interests in their well-being, and to end that (even painlessly) is in violation of their right to life.  Secondly, in a fair and unbiased contract, humans would not be able to commit speciesism and set aside different treatments for different species.  Animals would thus be the recipients not of identical treatment, but of equal consideration.  Finally, the harm brought forth by killing sets back one’s welfare interest, which is seen to be the worst harm that can befall anyone.  Killing animals for meat sets back their welfare interests, and is therefore prima facie wrong.  To conclude, the above points are sufficient to grant animals a moral right to life not to be killed for food.

References:

  • Benatar, D. 2009. Lecture Communications.
  • BestFoodNation, (ND). America’s Meat Industry [online]. Available: http://www.bestfoodnation.com/meat-processing.asp [accessed: 26 April 2009].
  • Carruthers, P. 1992. The Animals Issue. Cambridge University Press.
  • Curnutt, J. 1997. “A New Argument for Vegetarianism” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Feinberg, J. (1980) “The Rights of Animals and unborn Generations” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Frey, R.G. 1979. “Rights, Interests, Desires, and Beliefs” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Rawls, J. 1983. A Theory of Justice. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • Regan, T. 1985. “The Case for Animal Rights” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Rowlands, M. 1997. “Contractarianism and Animal Rights” Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 3.
  • Singer, P. 1990. “All Animals Are Equal” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.

Note: The views expressed in the essay are not necessarily my views. I simply wrote what was expected in order to get a decent mark, which I got :)

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As some of you already know, I registered for an applied ethics course this semester. I have to submit two essays, the first one being:

What arguments might be advanced to defend the view that homosexual actions are immoral? Do any of these arguments succeed?

Introduction

Homosexuality has been a subject of debate for centuries.  From ancient Greek philosophers to modern day theorists, everyone has, at some point, formulated ideas and arguments to support or negate the view that homosexual actions are immoral.  The purpose of this essay is to critically examine some of the principle arguments made against homosexual behaviour.  I will also provide an analysis of the counter-arguments, and thereby conclude whether any of the arguments succeed or fail.

Action Vs Orientation

Action, as opposed to orientation, denotes a choice.  It is not merely an attractive disposition for which there can be no responsibility or culpability.  (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009)  The scope of this essay is not to examine the morality of homosexual orientations, but rather the actions that result from having such an orientation.  The mere fact that the actions are chosen, puts homosexuals under abject scrutiny.  Heterosexists argue that homosexuality is immoral simply because there are immoral homosexual acts that undermine societal values.  For example, it is alleged that homosexuals are more likely to molest children.  This is one of the weaker arguments, in that on an empirical level, there are more immoral heterosexual acts than homosexual ones simply due to the fact that heterosexuals have the biggest denomination.  Yet, I have not seen one person proclaiming the immorality of sex between a male and a female, despite the numerous accounts of rape, paedophilia, et cetera that exist in the heterosexual sphere.  In short, the subset cannot be used to infer conclusions on the whole.

Disgust

This is also known as the “Yuk” factor whereby people assume an action is immoral based on their instinctive aversion to such acts.  This rationality is faulty as we cannot debate with regards to personal taste.   Homosexuals would most likely find conventional intercourse distasteful, and they would be entitled to that feeling as long as they don’t enforce it upon others.  Disgust is purely subjective and is not grounds for prohibition or condemnation.  In addition, there is the standard of reasonable avoidability. (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009)  No-one is forced to witness homosexual acts.  In the case where the disgust factor can be easily avoided, all complaints towards it are null and void.

Danger to Society

The argument proposed by Sir Patrick Devlin, a respected English legal expert, states: “Homosexual relations are a threat to the integrity of vital social institutions and are inconsistent with the moral perceptions of ordinary people…the institution of marriage is one of the moral foundations of society for no society can exist without a shared sense of morals and ethics. The suppression of vice is very much the law’s business and it is perfectly reasonable to prohibit homosexual relations.” (Benatar, D. 2002:262)  The problem with this is that social conventions are under constant migration.  Ordinary people have different moral perceptions.  As we move towards a more liberal way of thinking, an increasing number of people are beginning to accept homosexuals and their roles in society.  A parallel example to this would be divorce.  Several decades ago, the separation from one’s spouse was deemed inconceivably wrong.  The subject attracted a lot of stigma, and many believed it was destroying the institution of marriage.  Nowadays, as divorce is becoming increasingly common, it is no longer a taboo subject.  If we apply the same reasoning to homosexuality, chances are in a couple of decades’ time, homosexuals will be as well perceived as their heterosexual counterparts.   Therefore, we need to clearly distinguish between social transformation and social collapse (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009), and realize that the two need not be mutually inclusive.

Many people are also under the wrongful impression that couples who engage in anal-sex have a higher chance of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  However, there is no medical analysis attached to this speculation, and the results are not verified by the proper channels.  The risk of contracting HIV is linked to the practice of safe sex, not one’s orientation.  Even if anal-sex does make one more susceptible to HIV transmissions, it is still not good enough a reason to infer immorality onto homosexual behaviours. Suppose homosexual acts do put the participants under increased risk of contracting HIV, we can push the boundaries further and say celibacy should be the way to go as celibates are immune from all sexually transmitted diseases.  Of course, such suggestions are irrational and impractical.

Violates Scripture Prohibition

Appealing to God is another popular advancement against homosexual behaviour.  Many religious fundamentalists express their disapproval by quoting Biblical scriptures that condemn homosexual acts as illustrated in Leviticus 18:22.  Unfortunately, these people are too deeply engrossed in their beliefs to realize that religion is not evidence of proof.  The Bible is not, and never will be, an authority in the eyes of atheists – to them, it is merely a book written by men and in the words of men.  Even if for argument’s sake, we suppose there is a higher being, there is nothing to indicate the faithful representation and accurate interpretation of God’s words.  The Bible for example, is filled with contradictions and confusions.  Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the heterosexists to demonstrate reasons for punishing those whose only crime is “to engage in the only form of love-making that they feel capable of”. (Leister, B. 1997)  In other words, appealing to a more controversial premise (i.e. God) is neither intellectual nor philosophical as no one can actually prove the verity of the second premise.

Unnatural, Therefore Immoral

The gist of this argument is that homosexual tendencies are unnatural, and the practise thereof, violates the law of nature.  From that, it is concluded that homosexual actions are evil and wrong.  The term “unnatural” can be interpreted in several ways, the first of which is something that does not occur in nature.  However, homosexual behaviours do occur in the wild, as seen in the actions of a long list of animals including: birds, penguins and dolphins.  An extract taken from a National Geographic article says, “There are male ostriches that only court their own gender, and pairs of male flamingos that mate, build nests, and even raise foster chicks.” (Owen, J. 2004)  Therefore, humans are not the sole participants in what appears to be a naturally occurring act.  Secondly, “unnatural” can also point to things that are artificial or synthetic.  (Leiser, B. 1997)  Again, this definition holds little persuasion.  Technological advances have given us the luxury of genetically modified foods, synthetic clothing materials, and lab-induced products.  So, in this sense, if we are to condemn homosexual acts for being “unnatural”, we have to extend the same courtesy to all the afore-mentioned products, and that is clearly ludicrous.  Lastly, it is suggested that homosexuality is unnatural in the sense that it is abnormal.  But there is nothing that connects statistical outliers with immorality.  Geniuses for example, are rare occurrences, but their existence is certainly not immoral.

The second part of this argument deals with violating the laws of nature.  I will expand on this by drawing on the teachings of David Benatar (Lecture communication, 2009).  Laws of nature are different to social laws in that the former is descriptive (e.g. Newton’s law of gravity) while the latter is prescriptive (e.g. legislative laws).  Descriptive laws are universal and cannot be over-ridden or violated.  Flying on an aeroplane is not in violation of gravitational laws as gravity is still acting on the plane.  If not, the plane would be randomly floating into space.  So, laws of nature are not akin to social conventions which require people to behave in a certain manner.  Going against natural laws does not lead to punishments, but rather consequences.  To say homosexual activities are immoral because they violate laws of nature, and to subsequently punish those who indulge in homosexual acts is nonsensical and abusive.

Negating the Proper Evolutionary Functions of Bodily Parts

Our organs are developed for specific purposes.  Just as eyes are for seeing and ears are for hearing, the primary function of genitals is reproduction.  Traditional intercourse between a man and a woman may result in the formation of an embryo – something homosexual couples cannot achieve.  The argument which stems forth from this is that homosexuals are using their genitals for unintended purposes.  The misuse of genitals is deemed perverse and ought to be prohibited.  (Leiser, B. 1997)

There are many rebuttals for this segment.  Firstly, heterosexual couples who engage in masturbation and oral sex – both common practices – are also negating their proper bodily functions, yet no one is prohibiting them from doing it.  The same goes for women on birth-control pills, and men who use condoms during intercourse.  By preventing possible pregnancy, they are also in negligence of the proper evolutionary functions of their organs.  It can also be argued that the world does not need more babies – it is already overpopulated. With lengthened life spans and increasing birth rates, we really do not need couples fostering more children than they already are.

What about people with studs in their ears or spectacles on their noses?  They are clearly misusing the body parts!  (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009) But who is to say our organs have one, and only one, function?  Evolution has made it possible for organs to have multiple capabilities.  It may very well be that our bodies could also be used for artistic displays of rings and necklaces.  The same applies to our genitals.  Other than the function of procreation, they also serve as pleasure-inducing agents.  Therefore, homosexuals are satisfying the secondary purpose of their genitals by engaging in pleasurable activities.  What is more, sex organs are used to express one’s love for another in the most intimate way. To deny someone of that privilege is baseless and cruel.

Bestiality and Necrophilia

So far, every argument against homosexuality has been dissected and refuted. However, this leaves the subject matter in a vulnerable position as everything that is used to defend homosexuality could also be used to defend bestiality and necrophilia.  Logic implies that if we accept homosexual acts, we are obliged to morally accept sex acts with animals as well as sex acts with the dead.

One way of overcoming this is to simply bite the bullet and feign indifference.  That is, to take the stance that bestiality and necrophilia are both acceptable practices.  But most people find it hard to deal with such a controversial point of view.  Those who are in favour of homosexual acts are repulsed by bestiality and necrophilia even though they have no rational arguments to support their instinctive aversions.  But all is not lost. David Benatar (lecture communication, 2009) proposes an alternate view. He says is it possible to exclude bestiality and necrophilia if we adopt the significance view of sex.  That is, “mutual romantic love is a necessary condition for the moral permissibility of sex”.  Animals and the dead are incapable of expressing romantic love, so there can be no mutual love making.  Unfortunately, such an argument does not exist for those who adopt the casual view of sex, but that is a new topic going beyond the scope of this essay.

Conclusion

This essay merely deals with a few of the common missiles against homosexuality. The moral issues regarding the topic at hand are far from being exhausted.  We can nevertheless extrapolate from the contents of this essay, and conclude that none of the arguments spurred forth withstand critical examination.  There is nothing cogent in defence of the view that homosexual actions are immoral.  Homosexuals should be given the same rights and privileges as everyone else.  The sooner we accept this, the better off our society would be.

References:

Edit: Please do not duplicate