Philosophy: March 2007 Archives

This is the fortieth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at some of the arguments that have been offered in favor of taking ourselves to have free will. In this post, I'd like to distinguish between the different views one can take on the two main issues at stake in this debate, with some attention to which combinations of these views are coherent.

I've already given a definition of determinism, and its denial is indeterminism. If the laws of nature and any state of the world guarantee any later state of the world, then determinism is true. Otherwise, indeterminism is true. The question that immediately arises is how we should connect that issue up with the question of free will. To settle that, we first need an account of what free will is, and then we can answer the question of whether we could be free in a world that is deterministic. In a coinage that, unusual for philosophy, actually reflects ordinary, contemporary English, the view that freedom and determinism are compatible is called compatibilism. Thus some views of freedom will be compatibilist accounts of freedom, while others will be incompatibilist.

Incompatibilism splits into two main camps, libertarianism and hard determinism. Both affirm that we can't have free will if determinism is true, but each chooses a different horn of the dilemma. Libertarians (not to be confused with political libertarians) affirm human freedom and deny determinism, while hard determinists accept determinism and deny free will. The standard libertarian account of freedom includes at least one thesis, sometimes called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). PAP says that it is possible to do otherwise than what we actually do. Whatever we did do, we could have done something else. We'll look at some variations in what else a libertarian might say, but most libertarians do accept this component. For now it will suffice to see that if determinism is true, then only one future seems possible, since the laws of nature together with the past will guarantee the future, exactly one future, without other options for what that future will be. So if determinism is true, then we seem not to have alternative options. Thus freedom requires indeterminism if libertarianism is correct.

Jonathan Ichikawa has an interesting argument for vegetarianism. It would be immoral to have a party where we throw human parts around just for the fun of it, parts from people grown specifically so that we can have enjoyment in doing exactly that. Jonathan suggests that it would be wrong to attend the party even if such attendance doesn't cause the practice or fund it in any way. He says this is because it supports it. I'm not sure that's the real reason it's wrong. I agree with Richard's comment that mere participation in an evil practice is wrong. I don't think it's supporting it that's the issue. It might be ok to support an evil practice as long as one's reason for doing so is not to use that evil practice as a means to your end but rather that the support is an unintended side-effect that your end doesn't itself rely on. But in this case that's not what's going on, since you're actively participating in the practice. That's what seems to me to be wrong about it. Is the same true for eating animal meat produced in factory farms? The argument assumes that animals in factory farms really are treated immorally, but that's something I agree with.

One way to distinguish between the two cases is if you have a basic distinction between our moral obligations to animals and our moral obligations to humans. Some people, for instance, think we have moral relationships with humans as our fellow members of a moral community that we don't have with animals. This doesn't mean we have no moral obligations toward animals, but the fact that they're not in the moral community with us in terms of being moral agents themselves is, on some ethical theories, reason for taking them to have moral properties of a different order. Perhaps this is not having rights of the same sort. For example, it's easier for our obligations to animals to be outweighed by other considerations than it is for our obligations to humans, or perhaps our obligations to humans can never be outweighed, while our obligations to animals can.

I don't myself think this is sufficient, because I think attending such a party with animal parts is immoral (even if you don't pay to attend). I do think it's much less wrong than with people parts, but it's wrong. The reason is not that you're funding the killing of animals for mere entertainment (although if it's also that, it might add to its wrongness). It's also not that it's merely supporting such a practice. You're engaging in the very entertainment goal that constitutes the evil practice. You're not merely supporting it, and I think engaging in it without supporting it is wrong. Suppose, for example, that you were able to sneak in, take an animal part or two off to your own private room with some friends, and engage in your own game of catch for enjoyment. I don't see how that provides any support for the practice. You even detract from it by stealing some of their animal parts without ever engaging with those who are doing it in any positive way. But you participate in an important way in the behavior that constitutes the practice.

So I don't think this is the right way for those who defend meat-eating to respond to Jonathan's argument. Merely distinguishing between the moral status of humans and animals won't be sufficient if the same practice with animal parts is wrong, and it's wrong merely to participate in it. If eating meat is analogous to playing games with it, then merely eating it is wrong. That's participating in it. It doesn't matter if you aren't providing any noticeable (or even any) support to the practice that will help it continue or fund those who do it. Even if you stole all the meat you eat, you'd be participating. So I think defending omnivorous practices in a world where most meat comes from factory meat-market is going to require finding some disanalogy between the case of eating meat and the case of throwing animal meat around for entertainment.

The Dawkins Delusion

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I'm not sure how I missed this, but it's one of the most intelligent (not to mention one of the funniest) parodies I've ever seen of anything.

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