Humans, Animals, and Souls

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I've been looking at the case of the moral status of animals in my summer ethics class, and I've just finished rereading a piece by Tom Regan, who argues that animals have full moral rights and thus shouldn't be treated as means to human ends, including any use in laboratory experiments, for food, as pets, or for entertainment. His is just one of several views I'm looking at, and it's not new to me, since I've taught this article or another similar one several times in the past. So I wasn't expecting to notice an argument that I didn't remember from any of the previous times I included his work, but there's an argument about souls that strikes me now as particularly bad in a way that it surprises me not to have noticed it before.

He considers and dismisses several reasons people might have for thinking humans have rights that other animals do not have, and one in the list is the view that humans have immortal souls, and animals do not. His argument against this method of distinguishing the moral status of humans and animals was simply that the issue of whether humans have immoral souls is controversial, and we shouldn't base our stance on one controversial issue on our stance on one that's even more controversial.

I can't say I'm impressed by this argument. Most people who believe in immortal souls do not do so based on the controversial arguments offered by philosophers, most notably those of Plato and Descartes. There problems with their arguments. Someone who holds an alternative view has some pretty easy dodges. They can deny a premise or point out that certain inferences don't follow if materialism is true. Of course, the derision held for mind-body dualism among professional philosophers is reserved for few views, and philosophers who find these arguments unconvincing are usually unwilling to recognize that pretty much every philosophical argument for any position that doesn't command near-universal agreement is just like that. I'm not at all sure that Plato and Descartes' arguments are as bad as they're made out to be, so I'm not willing to grant that immortal souls are more controversial than views on animal rights, as Regan seems to think.

But there's a deeper reason why this argument can't easily succeed. If we do have immortal souls, then that might make a big difference in how we think about moral status. Suppose it does. Suppose also that there's no convincing argument either way. Does it follow that we shouldn't assume that we have immortal souls that animals lack? Suppose it does. I think it's only fair to say that we also shouldn't assume that we don't have such souls. Regan's claim that there's no good reason to think we have moral status that animals lack would then turn out to be true, but it would also be true that Regan has no good reason to think we don't have moral status that animals lack. We should hold no view either way, and he thinks he can just assume one stance on this issue that he thinks is more controversial than the question he's primarily writing about. He's done the same thing he's claiming the believer in immortal souls shouldn't do.

There is one reason you might favor one side, though. Regan could argue that he would assume one way rather than the other on this question because he's giving the benefit of the doubt to those who, if we ignore their possible rights, we do great wrong to. If we assume animal rights, we prevent what might be a serious wrong to animals. I should say that those who use this reason better not be pro-choice in the abortion issue on the ground that we don't know for sure if a fetus has moral status (and there are indeed people who take such a view, including the current President of the Unites States).

But there are at least two considerations that would at least moderate such a presumption. One is that the human benefit of various ways we treat animals, not least being the significant scientific advances from animal experimentation that produce benefits both for humans (and probably animals), means we would be doing a great wrong to humans (and possibly for animals) if it turned out that animals have no rights but we pretend they do.

But we also need to take into account the fact that a large number of people who believe in immortal souls do not do so because of philosophical arguments but because their religious beliefs include that view. To evaluate whether such people's beliefs are rational we'd have to evaluate the entire question of the rationality of religious belief, something I've certainly spent a lot of time on in other places but won't get into here. That's yet another controversial question, but if it turns out religious belief can be rational then there might well be a rational reason for thinking we do in fact have immortal souls that animals lack. Without knowing that, Regan's argument now has to rely on two unestablished conclusions and thus is doubly question-begging even if he's right that the other side's argument is question-begging.

I happen to think I've got good reasons for thinking my belief in immortal souls and in the non-existence of immortal souls in animals, even before I've considered the question of the moral status of animals. I don't think animals have no moral status, but I don't think Regan can dismiss a view held by the majority of the world's populace as easily as this, since he hasn't actually even given any arguments against the two views he'd need to resist for his argument to go through (although maybe he does do that elsewhere, but I doubt it since he does say that he hopes he does have an immortal soul, and he does speak once of God as if he believes in a divine being). I don't think the status of animals is anywhere near as simply as humans having full moral status because of immortal souls and animals have none because of no souls, but surely more needs to be said to refute that kind of consideration than simply noting that it's controversial.

7 Comments

I wonder how one would go about defending the religious belief that cows ought to be killed in a slow and tortuous way for their meat to be fit for consumption as against a religious belief in the sanctity of cows. Unlike Descartes, people think that animals can suffer and so are concerned about animal welfare. Belief in an immortal soul doesn’t by itself settle anything if there can be reincarnation/transmigration of souls into animals. I’m not sure what it means for a religion to be rational or how we could rationally choose one religion over another. I think belief in mind-body dualism is part of folk psychology but I can’t see why philosophers should be particularly impressed by this.

As I said, I'm not really interested in pursuing those issues here. I've got an ongoing series that I come back to every now and then that has treated many of the issues you raise. I'm lining to all the posts from this post. The discussion of the rationality of religious belief is fully there already, and I've posted at least the bulk of what I intend to do on philosophy of mind, although I have yet to cover the kinds of arguments raised by Frank Jackson and David Chalmers on consciousness and John Searle on intentionality (and the most convincing argument for dualism is simply the ridiculous nature of every materialist approach to personal identity, which won't appear until the end of the series).

Thanks for the link. You’ve got an embarrassment of riches over there;I can’t immediately identify a heading under which rational choice between alternative religious beliefs over bovine ethics may be implicitly dealt with but never mind. You suggested that people don’t believe in souls on the basis of philosophical arguments but because they believe in religions which postulate souls. But there are folk theories of mind which can explain why e.g. babies unlikely to have religious beliefs tend to project minds onto people, animals or ‘inanimate’ objects, or why most people may not have considered solipsism. I just don’t think this is grounds for philosophers to dismiss the problem of other minds. I won’t defend the materialist approach to personal identity against ridicule though this doesn’t quite amount to acknowledging an argument for dualism, not until someone comes up with a statement of ‘the correct law of conservation’ (I did check the ‘interactionism’ entry). And talking of stuff one may miss on first reading, I just noticed you say ‘the issue of whether humans have immoral souls is controversial’, which may not be that controversial!

I haven't spent a lot of time on choosing between alternative religious beliefs, but I've spent a lot of time on the rationality of religious belief and what might make religious belief genuine knowledge. What would make it knowledge isn't something someone examining various views is always going to pick. What would make it knowledge depends on external factors, such as whether it's true and whether the source of the original information actually is God. On a reliabilist account, those are the key issues.

I'm not sure you're targeting the argument I intend to be giving. I'm not arguing that most people's conceptions of the moral status of humans and animals is going to be recognizably philosophically respectable. I'm just point out where I think certain beliefs are going to come from, and I'm claiming that such a source doesn't necessarily count as irrational (but may well do so in many cases). Being rational isn't the same thing as being respectable philosophically in terms of offering convincing arguments, at least if knowledge is as externalist as I (and I think most contemporary epistemologists) think it is.

Dualism doesn't necessary face an interaction problem to begin with (see Leibniz). But I'm becoming less and less convinced that the interaction problem is worrisome. The more we move away from determinist physics at the quantum level, the more room there is for some of the physically-indeterminate functions to be determined by non-physical factors. I don't think it's helpful to try to account for libertarian freedom by such things, but I do think it can make more sense of interactionist dualism than can be done with the conservation laws as construed in a Newtonian way (as the argument against dualism seems to me to assume).

I recommend taking a look at Lycan's "Giving Dualism Its Due". It's currently available on his website. He gave this talk a couple months ago here, and I was impressed at how willing such a stalwart materialist was to insist that dualism can handily respond to pretty much every positive argument for materialism and every negative argument against substance dualism. I don't agree with every point, particularly about his insistence about some of the modifications to dualism that he thinks are needed for it to work, but several of his points seemed along the same lines as what I've been thinking for several years.

As for immoral souls, that one's good enough that I won't even change it. I'll allow the correction to stand in the comments and enjoy the humor of it.

OK, so I guess your response is that the evolutionary explanation for belief in other minds is consistent with your view as long as other minds exist and God is the source of the belief; except, if we can’t tell whether the external conditions specified hold or not, it's not clear what makes reliabilism an epistemological position. Reliabilism may be a comforting metaphysical theory for one already committed to a particular theistic religion, but if the comfort is available to adherents of incompatible theistic religions indiscriminately, since there’s no way to appraise competing claims, externalism can’t be much use to epistemology, or to animal ethics, if we can’t tell whether we should revere or bleed cows to death.

I think of rationality as necessary though not sufficient for knowledge. Alternative consistent and coherent theories can be in competition, e.g. in science, and I’d expect an epistemological theory to resolve questions of evaluation and choice, which externalism seems unable to do. (I think it’s debatable whether there are statements of religious doctrines which are particularly consistent and coherent, but then I don’t take what can be known by humans to constrain what there may be.)

I’ve had a look through Lycan's paper, thanks. If you're puzzled by spatially located ‘immaterial souls’, I’d agree. I also agree indeterminism cannot account for free will any better than determinism. I'll wait for that model for Cartesian interaction, which we can’t be sure won’t emerge, to do so. But, though content with his version of dualism, Lycan apparently feels entitled to stick with materialism anyway because there’s no evidence; this is presumably the privilege of metaphysicians.

Why would God have to be the source of a belief if we're using reliabilist accounts of knowledge? The place God comes in is with reliabilist accounts of rational belief in God, not reliabilist accounts of rational belief in other minds.

So maybe you're just opposed to reliabilism in epistemology, but it does remain the predominant account of knowledge in contemporary philosophy and particularly the dominant account of how I can be justified in my belief in the external world without a viciously-circular account of why. According to externalist epistemology (which is certainly an epistemological view, not a metaphysical view), if the source of my true belief is sufficiently truth-conducive, then it constitutes knowledge even if I have no understanding of what makes it truth-conducive.

The reliabilist view itself is compatible with lots of metaphysical accounts, but only one of those accounts is true, so reliabilism can't count belief in a false one as genuine knowledge. It's not intended to be an account of how I can have second-order knowledge about my knowledge. It's just supposed to explain how first-order knowledge can occur even in cases where I lack Cartesian certainty.

I think it has a great deal of value in epistemology if a view has the consequence that skeptical arguments fail due to the skeptic's ignorance of whether a certain set of beliefs is grounded in truth. That's not everything every epistmelogist has ever wanted, but it's certainly something, and indeed it's more than the empiricist could ever get, since empiricism stops at the very outset. The very principle that your senses are the only legitimate source of information is something you could never learn by using your senses. At least reliabilism isn't self-undermining.

As for ethics, I see no particular problems here. The epistemology of ethics seems to me to be a problematic area in general. After all, what do we have to go on? It's not as if we can see ethical truths written into the fabric or reality. We just have our moral intuitions to go by, and we have those whether we think God implanted them into us or whether we evolved them with no source in any wise creator. In the latter case, we have no reason to trust them as a good guide, but we have nothing better to go on, so we become pragmatists and pretend they're a good guide anyway.

In the former case, we at least have a theory (even if one that's not proved) about why we should trust them as a reliable source, and if it's a true theory then we might actually have moral knowledge. So if you're going to have a moral view of that sort, it's a good idea to have one that lines up somewhat with our moral intuitions or contains explanations of why certain moral intuitions wouldn't be as reliable a guide. But I'm not sure someone in this position is any worse off than the naturalist, who has no good reason to trust any ethical intuitions to begin with.

I'm not asserting that there are no principles to use to decide between competing religious explanations. I happen to think there are reasons in favor of Christianity, ones that count even as evidence. Certain facts about the biblical record seem to me to place it in a much higher position than other religions. (See here for my argument for that.)

I'm not puzzled by spatially-located immaterial souls. Aristotle had that one long ago, and Thomas Aquinas refined it. Leibniz had a very different way of handling that as well. It's his claim that one need resort to such a view to maintain dualism that I find odd in that section. As for Lycan's reason to stick with materialism, he doesn't actually think he's intellectually entitled to that. He even calls his decision irrational. But then he thinks he ought to be a materialist somehow, but I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's some kind of pragmatism.

‘Why would God have to be the source of a belief if we're using reliabilist accounts of knowledge? The place God comes in is with reliabilist accounts of rational belief in God, not reliabilist accounts of rational belief in other minds.’

Fair point. I thought God was another mind, and it didn’t occur to me that religious knowledge had sui generis conditions attached to it; if so, I’d rather call it 'sui generis knowledge’. Of course it depends what your paradigm of knowledge is; I certainly wouldn’t go for religion, since no consensus has been forthcoming in recent millenia and it’s hard to see how a reliable belief-source can have such widely divergent outputs. Applied to religion, reliabilism does seem to be self-undermining.

As I said, I think I can see why someone already committed to a particular religion may find reliablism comforting. What’s discomforting, if one doesn’t think philosophy is a servant to our pet prejudices, is that the comfort is cold if it’s available to all sorts of incompatible belief systems. So I’m glad Lycan acknowledges the irrationality of his own commitment. We can’t just assume that a belief-source is truth-conducive. Postulating what we need to prove doesn’t quite answer the skeptic; and that we may have knowledge and not know it sounds more like joining the skeptic. I agree that if there's evidence and arguments for or against religious belief one may be able to pick one over others; but I also think that the grounds for choice aren’t reliabilist any more. So I don’t exactly oppose reliabilism, I just find it dubiously relevant to epistemology.

I’m sympathetic to what you say about moral epistemology in general. I have no strong intuitions about the treatment of cows though I’m disinclined either to worship them or put them to a slow death. But I suspect those with definite though incompatible views don’t have different intuitions, they just trust different revelations; and I don’t know how to argue with revelation, which still leaves cows out in the cold.

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