Objectivity as a Moral Duty

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

While we must not neglect our subjective feelings and thoughts, there are powerful reasons why we need to strive to transcend them.

It doesn’t always matter what’s objectively true. In particular, it’s often not right to correct other people in things that are emotionally important to them just because they’re getting some details wrong. For one thing, it’s not good to question others’ religious beliefs without an especially good reason. It’s often much more important to be sensitive to emotional truths.

Suppose, for example, that someone is afraid of snakes. Then it’s not all right for you to hand them your pet snake because it’s not objectively dangerous to hold it. Their fear is still real and you should take it into account.

And yet…

If you are biased against a person and see them as, say, scheming and insincere, that may be your emotional truth. But if it’s not based on objective truth, is it right for you to treat the person as if they have done something wrong without really knowing whether they have?

If you feel afraid of vaccinations causing autism, that may be your emotional truth. But if scientific evidence is clear in that there’s no such connection, and further, if not vaccinating children can lead to a measles outbreak (for real, objectively), is it right for you to hold onto your “truth” and suppose that scientists are all in on some big conspiracy?

Suppose your version of your religion tells you to discriminate against some people, such as homosexuals? What if your emotional truth is that women are inferior? Black people? What if your emotions lead you to treat your own side favorably and what you see as the other side unfairly? Condemn “them” while letting “us” off the hook for wrongdoing? What if you simply condemn others for being wrong and foolish when they have the better objective reasons for their beliefs?

Our minds and selves are complicated tangles of various emotions, beliefs, unconscious influences and who knows what. All kinds of different things lead us to have beliefs. Emotions are a part of this process that cannot and should not be taken out of it. Nevertheless, they often lead the process astray. We need to use enough cool, objective reasoning to see that we don’t cling to strong beliefs that we could be able to tell are just wrong.

It’s wrong to judge or treat people in ways they don’t deserve. It’s wrong to take harmful actions when you could have known better. It’s harmful to deceive oneself. Fairness, justice, humility, the principle of least harm, they all lead to this conclusion:

We have a duty to be objective in forming our beliefs so as to make them as true as possible.

It doesn’t apply to everything and always, but there are many cases in which it does, and it’s probably better to take it as a general guideline. Doing otherwise risks treating other people unfairly based on our own biases as well as causing concrete harm.


Ihmiset, eläimet ja moraali

Tämä kirjoitus julkaistiin Indeksi-opiskelijalehdessä 1/19, tosin tämä on editoimaton versio.

Miksi en itse ole vegaani

En ole vegaani. En ole edes kasvissyöjä.

Tässä halusin kertoa, miksi. En halua kertoa sitä siksi, että minulla olisi hyviä syitä, vaan siksi, että minulla ei oikeastaan ole.

Ajatteluni perusta on yksinkertainen. Syön lihaa suurelta osin tottumuksen ja nautinnon vuoksi. Onko oikein tappaa toinen tuntoinen ja melko älykäskin olento tällaisen syyn takia? Ei ole. Jos valinta olisi yksinkertaisesti, tapetaanko jokin tietty sanotaan nyt selkärankainen eläin sen takia, että saan syödä sen, en voisi mitenkään aikeuttaa tätä valintaa, ellei sitten toisena vaihtoehtona olisi oma nälkäkuolemani tai ainakin minulle aiheutuva hyvin suuri haitta.

Asia muuttuu erilaiseksi silloin, kun kyse onkin siitä, ostanko jonkin muoviin pakatun palan jo tapetun eläimen lihaa. Continue reading

Mary Midgley Answers the Devil

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

The devil’s speech about God in “The Devil’s Advocate” raises a good question about the justification of moral rules. Philosopher Mary Midgley’s explanation of the nature of morality answers it perfectly.

There’s a scene in the movie The Devil’s Advocate in which the titular devil talks about how God is a perverse prankster. It’s quite fun to watch, but it also raises a serious question about morality.

“Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do, I swear, for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He’s laughing his sick, f*cking ass off!”

It’s a question that has just the same weight even if you drop religion or God out of the equation: Why are moral rules like that? Why are they always telling us to go against our instincts? Doesn’t that mean they are against our nature? Or are our instincts bad?

Before I go to my real point, this needs to be said: Some so-called moral rules really are just pointless restrictions. Some rules seek to control us for its own sake. They tend to be on the more “conservative” end, and typically try to force people to conform to certain roles and power structures. So I’m not defending every “moral” rule here.

Nevertheless, even a more “liberal” morality still frequently tells us to deny our instincts. It turns out there’s a very good reason for this.

In her book The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality, Mary Midgley presents a view of how morality works and why it’s necessary. This view goes back to Charles Darwin’s explanation for morality in The Descent of Man, but it works better as a philosophical than an evolutionary explanation.

According to this view, moral rules by their nature control and overrule our instincts and other impulses, but this is not because our instincts are somehow evil. It’s because our impulses are various and contradict each other.

Various motivations manifest in the human mind at different moments at various strengths. Notably, some motivations (passionate impulses) are momentary but strong, whereas others (caring about things and people) last longer. If we were to always follow the strongest impulse at the moment, we would do things that we’d regret later. With every decision we make, we need to keep in mind how much we value different things overall. Decisions need to be based on an evaluation of how they affect the totality of our lives, not just on what our instincts tell us to do at the moment, or they will soon lead to unhappiness.

This leads to the conclusion that even if we hold our “instincts” in high regard and seek their satisfaction, even before we start taking other people into account as well as we should, we already need rules that sometimes rein in our instincts.

“Against Their Religion” or “Wrong”?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Why do some people try to impose their own beliefs on others? That’s really the wrong question to ask. For most people, when something is wrong “according to their religion,” it’s also just wrong, period.

Why don’t people whose religious or other similar convictions are against something, like same-sex marriage, just keep it to themselves? Why do they insist on trying to make others conform to their beliefs as well?

The answer, as far as I can see, is depressingly simple.

They don’t actually think it’s just their religion (or whatever). They think it’s wrong. And one does not allow morally wrong things to be done just because someone else thinks it’s okay.

In a society with a variety of cultures, including different religions, everyone has to get used to dealing with people who don’t take the same things for granted as they do. Someone’s version of their religion might forbid X, and among people of the same group, it’s taken for granted you shouldn’t do X. But outside that group, the person can’t just act shocked at the suggestion of doing X and expect to be understood. Hence the classic explanation: “It’s against my religion.”

But that doesn’t mean people with different values will think of them as arbitrary peculiarities of their own traditions. Sure, some will notice that since there are different traditions, that maybe what their own says is not the final truth about everything. And some traditions have the nature of really only applying to one’s own group; I have heard that Judaism’s rules of conduct are like this.

But in many cases, people still think some things are simply wrong, and if it’s their religion saying so, that just means it’s stated on the highest possible authority.

In such cases, though the people may or may not explain their views in the weaker terms of “my religious convictions,” they’ll see such things as objective moral requirements or prohibitions, not just tradition or opinion. The rest of the world won’t agree because they don’t share the same beliefs about the authority of that tradition. But that doesn’t change the fact of how the group itself ultimately sees the matter.

So really, though what they do is wrong, people such as Christian conservatives opposing same-sex marriage are not wrong in opposing what they see as being wrong. It’s right to oppose that which is morally wrong, and someone opposing an actual wrong thing would have my support.

They are wrong in seeing that thing as morally wrong in the first place; they’re wrong in thinking their tradition is reliable and has such moral authority, wrong in thinking something can be morally wrong that harms no concerned party, wrong in their beliefs about what homosexuality is. But they do not think what they’re imposing on others is just their personal religious view. (In that too, of course, they are wrong.) So they do not need to think it’s all right to force one’s personal religious views on others. The answer to why they try to do it is that they think they’re doing something else.

The Difficulty of Taking Animals Seriously

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

A proposal to give comprehensive rights to non-human animals highlights just how many ways there are in which we are not taking them seriously.

I previously wrote about a proposal to recognize animal rights in the Finnish constitution – radical because it proposed really taking them seriously as opposed to treating non-human animals as accessories for human use. I also wrote that I would be taking part in a small group of philosophy majors at the University of Turku who were asked to comment on the proposal.

As this group had its first meeting, I realized there are even more ways in which we are not taking non-human animals seriously as individuals. In fact, it seems that there are ways in which we cannot, not even if we made it to the point of making such radical changes as to stop meat production.

Opponents have caricatured the proposal by saying it would lead on a slippery slope to giving rights to plants and bacteria. This makes no sense at all. It’s a very clear distinction to draw to limit rights to sentient beings. It’s limiting them only to humans that’s arbitrary.

However, we might ask a similar question that really seems to follow from the proposal: would it make it illegal to kill mosquitoes? If nothing else, such an implication is going to cause people not to take the whole thing seriously. And the Finnish proposal pretty much only talks of putting all animals on the same line (except humans still ahead in some ways). Yes, it’s sensible and prudent to think they may all be sentient and hence have some value, but maybe further distinctions would be in order?

There are other ways in which even the people behind this proposal are not taking animals seriously as individuals – and maybe we should not, because maybe we cannot. Perhaps the biggest question is whether we should interfere with processes that are natural.

Naturalness is a terrible ethical argument that people appeal to justify or vilify whatever they feel like, making “naturalness” mean whatever they want each time. In human affairs, appeals to naturalness are often untruthful excuses for injustice. However, when we start looking at all of nature, it may really be that interfering too much with what is natural ceases to make sense.

Consider lemmings, which have a breeding pattern that causes them to have huge population growth at certain times, presumably until effects of overpopulation kill off enough of them again. We can say we should not interfere to save all the individual lemmings on those years like we should intervene to save starving people… And we probably can’t intervene, at that, but if we don’t, we are not valuing those lemmings as individuals the same way as we do humans.

It seems we need to draw some moral lines, not because other sentient beings are not valuable, but because we can’t start interfering with all of nature’s cruelty.

The Finnish proposal is commendable, but when we start thinking about animal rights and human duties seriously, we can see there’s a lot of thinking that hasn’t been done yet.

Who’s the Enemy?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There are two main ways of thinking about who threatens freedom and democracy. One is that it’s certain groups of people. The other is that it’s whoever actually does certain things.

Who’s the enemy who’s threatening the world right now? There are two main views about this.

One view is this: The enemies are those who don’t believe in the value of moral values and democracy. Those who stifle freedom, hurt others, commit crimes, commit terrorism, wage wars, preach and espouse hatred.

The other view is this: The enemies are those who don’t believe in the value of moral values and democracy. Those who stifle freedom, hurt others, commit crimes, commit terrorism, wage wars, preach and espouse hatred.

Wait, that can’t be right. These are opposite views, but both could be described with the same words, especially by their supporters.

Let’s try that again.

One view is this: The enemy are those groups that are seen as going against the values of morality and democracy. You look at ISIS and note the word “Islamic”, and then it’s Muslims who are the problem. All of them. You think illegal immigrants are criminals, and then all refugees are bad guys and can and should be rounded up like animals.

The other view is this: The enemy is whoever actually does these things. It doesn’t matter what side you say you’re on. A terrorist is a terrorist whether they’re a Muslim extremist or a white supremacist. Denying people their human rights it wrong no matter who does it to whom.

Extremism is the enemy. Intolerance is the enemy. Hatred is the enemy. Violence is the enemy. You don’t get to dress it up in nicer words if someone on your “side” does it. A decent Muslim isn’t the “same” somehow as an Islamist extremist, but an extremist on “your” side is. If two people make statements that are almost indistinguishable if you hide all references to groups or sides, then those people are doing the same thing even if they’re on opposing sides.

The first view thinks that the important thing is to be on the right side, and then you’ll know all the wrong happens on the opposing side and whatever you do after that is justified self-defense at worst. If there’s anything bad on your side, it’s traitors to the group who disagree about this… and there are actually quite a lot of them, but they don’t really count, that’s not what your group is. The second view thinks that good and bad are not divided by groups, but instead, evil can exist in any group. And it should always be opposed.

A Radical Animal Rights Proposal

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

In Finland, a group of activists and lawyers have drafted a proposal to take animal rights seriously in the constitution. What makes it radical is simply that the laws never really take them seriously anywhere.

The Finnish Animal Rights Law Society has a proposal to alter the constitution of Finland to take animal rights into account.

I would describe the change as radical because it would make the law take nonhuman animals’ rights seriously – and that would be something new.

Am I implying Finland has had particularly poor laws for the protection of animals so far? No, that’s not the point. I’m saying nobody has laws that take animal rights seriously. What we currently have is built around the idea that humans can exploit other animals almost however they like, and the laws try to make us be nicer about it.

Even as such, the laws can often be inadequate. But what they don’t even try to do is start with the rights of other animals before asking what we may do with them.

The proposal of the Finnish Animal Rights Law Society does. They are connected with the US Nonhuman Rights Project, and are taking the idea at least as far, if not further.

The proposal is detailed, of course – I’m on a small board of philosophy majors who have been asked to evaluate the details, which have been drafted by lawyers – but the basic idea is simple. If nonhuman animals really have rights, then human interests don’t automatically trump them.

So, for example, we may take for granted our interest in eating meat, but since it’s no longer a true necessity for us, it’s not justified to use animals for meat production. Our culinary preferences do not take precedence over the lives of others.

Such reasoning no doubt seems absurd to many. Really, it follows quite logically if you actually start reasoning ethics from the beginning instead of taking the status quo and all our biases as given.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has drawn ire already. People on the whole are not interested in expanding the circle of whom they take morally into account into new, inconvenient fields. If most of us bother to do any moral reasoning at all about nonhuman animals, we’re ready to dismiss the question of eating or otherwise exploiting them with something facile like “It’s natural.”

We might ask hard questions about when it’s right to take the life of another being to preserve your own. That’s not what anyone usually does. They just take it for granted you may.

I’m not expecting the constitution to really be changed at this point. There’s too much inertia against such a radical change, no matter how reasonable it would be in theory. Visa Kurki of the Finnish Animal Rights Society also comments that he expects change to be slow, but this will get the conversation started.

Kurki also mentions awareness of climate change and the imminent availability of cultured meat as factors that may help with the change. Cultured meat is something I have really been looking forward to for just that reason.