A real philosopher of vegetarianism

June 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , , )

I was very excited to discover the work of Peter Singer, a philosopher and vegetarian who has been very active from the eighties till the present day.  Everyone with an interest in the subject should read his interesting article Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism, a good discussion piece that engages with the philosophical arguments both for, and against, eating meat (although Singer has very clear views).  It is a response to criticism of his earlier philosophical look at the Animal Liberation Movement. The most gratifying thing for me is that is argument is almost identical to my discussion on the subject, which were not based on any philosophical tradition but formed simply from an attempt to be rational, honest and consistent in my moral viewpoint.  The essence of both arguments is utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that argues that we have a moral imperative to maximise the total “utility” in the world.  Each person gains utility from things they like or want, such as food, money, happiness, fulfillment, comfort, pleasurable company, etc, and how important each thing is obviously depends on what else you have.  Books and art are no good if you are starving, but are important once your tummy is full.  Utility is of course a fuzzily defined thing, and could alternatively be called “value”.  Importantly, utilitarianism acknowledges that not all people view all things as equally important – each will have preferences, and these should dictate how things should be shared out.  For example, if me and a friend have two apples and two chocolate bars, and I like apples and he chocolate bars, then we should not share them equally – I should get two apples and he two chocolates.  If only all moral problems were this simple.

For the utilitarian, how something happens doesn’t explicitly matter – only the end result counts.  An example may help distinguish utilitarianism from competing philosophies at this point – let us consider the hero/villain problem.  In scenario 1, imagine you are faced with a burning building and have two options: to save three children from one room, or to save an old man from another.  Almost everyone would agree that the correct “heroic” thing to do is to save the children.  Now in scenario 2 you are a prisoner, and your captors insist that you either shoot three children, or an old man.  If you do not, they will kill all four.  Many people will see this as a true moral dilemma, because you are a “villain” no matter what you do. You have moral responsibility for their death, even though you couldn’t prevent it.  Yet isn’t the outcome exactly the “same” in both scenarios?

Such an argument has no doubt been used to undermine the utilitarianism philosophy, but the analysis is not complete.  The outcome only the same if we count only deaths at the end; it does not take into account the whole of the utility function.  We often “value” (gain utility from) taking a positive action to help others, and additionally we lose utility when forced to hurt others. So the two scenarios are not the same because the total utility in both is different.  Although my example is unambiguous enough so that most people would still spare the children, some people would refuse to kill anyone, therefore removing the blame of the deaths from themselves.  More people would die, but the total utility might still be higher because the blame for the deaths falls squarely on the captor, rather than with yourself.

So this brings me in a roundabout way to the point of this post – that we need to view utility in a very inclusive manner.  Both Singer, and myself, argue in detail that all beings that are capable of having goals, motivations, happiness or discomfort should be part of the equation.  We do not claim that all opinions are equal – just that all are there for consideration.  As Singer puts it, “many nonhuman animals can experience pain and pleasure… in this respect they are like humans and unlike rocks”.  We don’t have to care about rocks, buildings or ice sheets.  But we do have to care about all animals and plants and people, and weight their preferences accordingly.  (Note that this results in having to care about rocks and buildings and ice sheets, but for different reasons).

Singer puts the point across very clearly, in conjunction with some contemporary objections. Central to the argument is that we move away from a “rights” based view of morality towards one that balances all preferences fairly.  I still need to delve further into the literature to expose this fully, but the logic seems sound: rights only place rough bounds on what people can and can’t do, whereas utilitarianism allows for a much more detailed resolution of conflict.  It also allows (he argues that it insists) for varying degrees of importance to be placed on different individuals, therefore allowing animals to be protected on the same basis as people, but to a lesser degree.  I think almost everyone will agree that some account should be placed on animal preferences; that some attempt should be made to prevent them suffering and to have some degree of comfort and freedom; the only issue is how much.

We both agree that utilitarianism implies that circumstances should determine what is OK; there are no absolutes.  Eating meat is fair enough if you are on the brink of starvation; the line moves and is more blurry in normal life.  He is usually vegan but will eat vegetarian food at others houses, for example.  Presumably for Singer the social discomfort of making others cook completely out of their comfort zone is too much when balanced against eating dairy produce.  I tend to agree; such issues can in some cases result in weaker friendships.

As far as I can see so far, the debate hasn’t moved on much.  Read his work, and the responses to his work, and try to place your own views in the argument.  I will try to do so and I’ll post back here with my conclusions.


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Hobbes’ morality and vegetarianism

February 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm (thinking) (, , , )

My post about the morality of vegetarianism was my own personal reasoning for not eating meat.  However, it seems now that it bears a lot in common with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a 16th century British philosopher.  His book, Leviathan, was about how society should be organised, but it can be given a moralistic interpretation as discussed by David Gauthier.  I haven’t read this book; I learned about the relationship from the blog “Philosophical Disquisitions“, which contains an excellent summary of the philosophy read by the blogger.  This leads to some very accessible philosophy and is highly recommended.  The series on Hobb’s moral theory goes into detail about what Hobb’s theory looks like (although he hasn’t posted about the whole book yet).

As far as I can tell, the gist of Hobb’s theory is:

  1. The Rights of Nature: we have a “right” to use our power to preserve our liberty and nature (which includes our goals and desires).
  2. The Laws of Nature: we can persue and act upon anything that follows logically from our rights.
  3. Obligation: we are obligated to do something that in accordance with our laws.
  4. Justice: acting in accordance with our obligations.

All this is a bit confusing, but I think the point is that every person will act according to their rights of nature, and that no society can function if it requires people to give them up (because they are obligated to persue them).  Therefore we should form a moral society where nobody is forced to live without the rights of nature.

If my interpretation is correct, then my morality of vegetarianism is simply applying this to all beings.  All beings have some essential rights of nature (and these don’t all have to be the same); they can and must persue them; and we all have a moral obligation to permit them to, provided that it doesn’t interfere with our own moral rights.

Perhaps there are some real differences; firstly, people have an ability to enforce their rights via warfare, terrorism, etc that animals are incapable of, so the imperative to turn from what they want into what we should do is not equivalent.  Secondly, I spent quite a lot of effort discussing whether animals had a “nature” in the same sense that people do (i.e. do they really care the same way if they die or live controlled lives?).  Since I think I succeeded in concluding that we couldn’t rule this second point out, and I don’t think the first is relevant to morality (only to power), I think the comparison is fair.

An alternative interpretation might be that eating meat is a right; since it is in our power, we can therefore do it.  It basically comes down to whether non-humans get their rights considered or not.

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Breaking news: do human races exist after all?

January 23, 2010 at 10:27 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , )

With the recent focus on the problems of racism, discussing whether races exist has become something of a dangerous game.  Because we don’t believe that people should be discriminated against on the basis of race, it has been pushed that races don’t really exist – that it is a social construct.  This idea has been reproached by Nevin Sesardic in a peer-reviewed paper titled “Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept“, where he argues that races do exist, but that the biological concept has been usurped by people trying to justify racism.  If only we went back to the biological concept, he argues that we would find races are real.

Now I know a fair bit about genetics, and particularly human genetics, so I’m going to chip in with my own opinion, and leave the reader to examine whether it fits with the race concept proposed in the above paper.  I’ll start by stating some general facts:

  • There is significant genetic variation in people.
  • This variation is not “discrete” (i.e. caucasian and negro) but a continuous change between people.  For example, skin tone varies continuously across the world with every shade appearing somewhere.
  • There are real physical differences in people that are caused by these differences in genetics.  As an addendum: mental and emotional abilities are physically determined and so can be strongly influenced by genetics, too.
  • All of this variation is carried on genes which can be transferred to children regardless of the parents “race class”.

What all this means is that yes, differences between people exist; and yes, they can be important.  But there are no boundaries between people; if a good trait is found, it can and will spread to everyone eventually (and already has several times).  Additionally, complex behaviours such as intelligence are determined by so many factors – a good proportion of which are not genetic – that any difference in ability has to be slight, and will be rectified by interbreeding in any case.  There is no evidence that such factors exist, because the variation within a “race” is so much greater than the variation between different each “race”.  And because of the continuous transfer of genes that has been going on, there is no reason to believe that any difference would exist anyway.

Sesardic argues that although differences between races are small, they are measurable, and they do tell you things about the genetics of a person (in a weak statistical sense). So basically, from knowing someone’s genotype you can guess correctly which race they are.  He argues that this makes the “variation between” and “variation within” argument superfluous because the difference is still measurable.

My recent research is relevant here.  I have been taking genetic data, and trying to figure out which people are similar to which other people.  With current statistical technology based on looking at the proportion of our genomes we share with other people, we can tell the difference between French and Italians, between north Chinese and south, and between people from different Polynesian islands.  We can certainly tell an African American from a European American.  Interestingly, we can’t tell apart several Indian castes with distinct labels.  We can even build a “tree” of how different populations are from each other, with the continents coming out quite clearly, and Africa being the most diverse continent (supporting the “out of Africa” theory).

So this means Sesardic is right that measurable differences exist (we knew this).  You can call different “branches of the tree” races, if you want to.  But where is the correct place to “chop the branches off”?  Is it at “white vs black”?  How about the people with moderate pigmentation, e.g. Latinos, Asians, etc?  There are only two points on the tree that mean anything: the populations, i.e. people who are genetically equivalent (from a statistical point of view) such as French, Italian, etc. (actually, we can often find multiple groups within a nation; e.g. there are 3 main groups of French people found by our current analysis).  The other is to group all people together.  Everything else is introducing arbitrary distinctions;  you can just choose whether two populations should be grouped or split.

So do races exist?  I think it’s a silly question.  Populations exist.  Differences exist, which just means that our human population is not all the same (a good thing!).  What value is there to placing any other distinction between groups of people?  It doesn’t tell you anything useful about them; knowing someone is “black” only tells you about their skin colour and some weak (useless) statistical relation in their genetics.  We would need a label for every valid combination of people; a single Frenchman would be all of Northern French, French, Northern European, European, North Eastern Eurasian, Second Migration from Africa, etc. Which one is his “race”?

Knowing someone’s culture is a different matter of course.  Because we typically associate with people who are similar to us, knowing that someone is white tells lets you guess their culture and hence what opinions and background they might have.  But that is no better than knowing they are from Cornwall – it is just that people with similar childhood experiences and friendship groups are similar.  It is not race, but the culture that a person feels affinity for that determine the important things about him.  A person of Asian descent brought up to be “British” is a lot more similar in attitude and culture to a person of Saxon descent who is “British”, than to someone of Asian descent living in India (even their 3rd cousin).

A biological concept of “race” might or might not be of some scientific use, but it doesn’t have any place outside of academia, so why not use a different word?  In the meantime, we know people are influenced by language, so lets continue to remove the race barrier and let people be people.  As long as people are allowed to be different.

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Blondes are not more angry than Brunettes, but pretty people are

January 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , )

Reports have recently appeared that

Blondes are more aggressive than brunettes.

This news has appeared over the interwebs, from the BBC (since modified, but the evidence is still there) to the Daily Mail (from where the headline above hails).  And not too surprisingly, it is simply not true.  Which is sad, because the truth is probably more interesting.

In a study called “Formidability and the logic of human anger” researches from the University of Washington, in a peer-reviewed paper, showed that one of the main factors in how angry we are is how “formidable” we believe ourselves to be.  For men, this is predicted by strength; for women, it is predicted by attractiveness.  So attractive women really are more angry.  (But blondes are not more attractive than Brunettes, so the Daily Mail Headline is wrong).  Additionally, it isn’t just how attractive or strong we actually are that matters, but how we perceive ourselves.  Attractive and strong people have a higher sense of entitlement and are likely to get angry over smaller things because of this.

This is interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, it indicates an evolutionary motivation for anger and aggressiveness, based on whether people will do what we say if we make a “threat” (which is what an angry response is).  The more we can physically hurt them, refuse them things they want, or influence others to hurt them, the more likely we are to be successful with a threat.  So this study helps us understand why people get angry, which may help us overcome getting angry in the wrong circumstances.  Men primarily use strength to force their way, but women can both use strength (to a lesser degree), manipulation of men to exert strength, and removal of their favour.

Secondly, the results are in opposition to many leading theories about anger.  People who are strong and attractive usually have easier lives than their less attractive competition; anger is not usually explainable by hard experiences in childhood, for example.  It is interesting that we can both believe this theory and the above descriptions of threats, which are somewhat contradictory (although I’m sure both could be partially true).

Thirdly, the study looked at people’s opinion on their nation going to war.  How angry people get at a personal level, and their strength or attractiveness, all predict how likely you are to support a war.  This result seems the most bizarre to me; that a logical decision on a huge international conflict can be influenced by how pretty you are is a frightening thought.  Yet it makes sense if we again consider the evolutionary context.  In a small group conflict, those most able to win a fight are more likely to pick one; and that is the attractive strong people.  If our decision to support a war is influenced by our own personal level of aggression, then it all drops in to place; we feel able to go to war if we ourselves feel powerful.  We are more cautious if we have little personal power.

Of course, the usual caveats should be supplied here.  Correlation is not causation; people are not inevitably driven by their genetics.  Angry people are not always pretty or strong, and gentle people are not always weak and ugly!  What we have here is simply an extra piece of the jigsaw, one that makes a lot of sense if we look to our primeval roots for explanation.  Like most emotional behaviours, anger has pretty much lost its place in the modern world and the evolutionary forces driving it are going to be either absent, or more likely, preventing the most angry amongst us from being successful.

Pretty interesting, no?

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Batman: The Dark Knight

January 24, 2009 at 8:39 pm (thinking) (, , , , )

I really enjoyed a discussion of the Dark Knight at overthinkingit.com about a literary theory analysis of the film.  There is a really great discussion about the various ways you can classify stories – “mystery”, “action”, “symbolism” and “cultural” being the broad categories.  The author argues – successfully – that it is the way our cultural knowledge of batman and the joker combine with the films portrayal that make this film so good.  Its a great geeky read, and I love that it makes the film all about The Joker.

The classifications are quite interesting.  “mystery” is essentially the plot – its what we don’t know and what we want to find out.  For example, will Batman get the girl?  Can he save Gotham and himself?  What is the Jokers evil plan?  The “action” element is not just the visual effects, but also the satisfactory explanation of the mystery.  It makes the plot make sense.

Interestingly, these are the only elements that are actually about the film.  The “symbolism” category relies on our knowledge of the world to add interest and a purpose to the film as a work of art, rather than just as a story.  Batman is an interesting symbol of good fighting evil because he is dark and hidden himself.  Batman has two sides, as does two face, and the joker as well.  But the story is really all about the “cultural” knowledge we have of batman.  He is a superhero, and we have a lot of expectations of what that means.  As the article says,

We don’t tune in to see how Batman will handle the badguys, we want to know how the filmmakers will handle Batman.

And the big new character in this film..? We get to know how the filmmakers handle the Joker.  Heath Ledger takes our expectations and turns them into something gruesome, something terrible, into something really damn cool.  If we hadn’t seen all the other Batman films, he’d just be a weirdo in some makeup.  But he is not: he is The Joker.

Check it out.

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Farting cattle destroy the world

January 24, 2009 at 7:32 pm (thinking) (, , , , , )

It probably isn’t what most people would think of when they consider the global changes made by mankind, but the amount of livestock we keep is a big burden on the environment.  Approximately 20% of all animals alive are densely farmed, significantly reducing the amount of land available for unfarmed animals.  And farm animals are big offenders in producing CO2, and worse greenhouse gasses including methane and nitrous oxide.

To put it in perspective, a fifth of global emissions are farming induced – which is more than automobiles.  Changing from a gas guzzling four-by-four to an energy efficient prius saves less emissions than becoming vegetarian. It takes 10 times as much land to feed a person meat as the same calorie value in vegetables – and a lot of that difference is converted into global warming nasties.

I don’t think this counts as a reason to be a vegetarian, however.  This is not a matter of absolutes.  Simply cutting down on the amount of meat eaten could have a big impact on the environment.  Only in the last 50 years did we get meat every day – pre-industrial farmers couldn’t afford it, and hunter-gatherers had to make do with whatever they could get.  We don’t need meat often to get benefits from it – and vegetarian food can be just as tasty if you know how to cook it.

But imagine the wildlife parks we could have if we could reclaim nine tenths of all pasture land!  If we could give even a fraction of that back to nature, wild populations could recover, rain forests wouldn’t need to be cut down, and global warming would be significantly reduced.  Good, no?

This is a good reason to eat less meat, but there are other reasons to eat none at all.  See my post about the morality of vegetarianism for why I am a vegetarian.

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Joseph and the amazing moral lesson

January 18, 2009 at 10:56 pm (religion, thinking) (, , , , , )

We just saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat this evening, and it was pretty good.  The songs are fun and and fit together cleverly.  Its too short with many repeated songs at the end but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.

However, I wonder if there is a worse lesson commonly told from the Bible.  Its very old testament, of course, but still.

The plot: Joseph is the favourite son of Israel, better than all his other brothers.  He tells them all about how his dreams of the future make him better than them and he lords it over them.  He gets his technicolour coat, which he runs in their faces – and they get jealous.  So they sell him to slavers who take him to Egypt.

Joseph has a sucky time for a bit but his knowledge of dreams leads him to power with the pharoah by predicting and preventing a terrible famine.  The brothers come begging for food, so Joseph lords it over them.  He demands his technicolour coat, which he rubs in their faces – and they have to put up with it this time!

So what was learned in this story?

  • Don’t disbelieve people who claim to have God helping them predict the future, because they might be right
  • Its OK to be arrogant if you are in fact favoured by God
  • Things, such as a coat, are very important and should be put first over your family
  • You should forgive others if you can make them eat a really huge slice of humble pie

This is simply bizarre.  Why, for example, did Joseph not realise how meaningless the coat was, and why he shouldn’t consider himself better than his brothers simply for getting Gods help with a few dreams?  How come the brothers learned an important lesson about humility, but Joseph could not?  Why was he rewarded for being an ass and staying an ass?

I really see why Christians are a bit skeptical of the Old Testament.  Are there no better lessons to popularise than this?

May I return to the beginning
The light is dimming, and the dream is too
The world and I, we are still waiting
Still hesitating
Any dream will do.

It is mighty meaningful – although I don’t know what it means.

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Lack of brain activity

July 29, 2008 at 9:49 pm (thinking) (, , , )

So the purpose of this blog, in a rough sense, was to give my brain something to think about.  I’ve noticed that compared to my Uni days, I spend a lot more time watching TV than I used to.  I also feel that I spend a lot less time thinking in a meaningful way.  Correlation or causation?

A lot has been written about Too Much TV Making You Stupid.  We KNOW this, from our very souls, anyone who ever read a newspaper or watches the news or just speaks to people knows this.  It is anecdotally evident that having the brain mildy activated seems to prevent it from trying to make its own entertainment, i.e. thinking.  Certainly regular brain activity prevents brain decay.  It seems plausible that I’m not stimulating my brain in the right way any more.

There are plenty of other reasons for feeling slow.  Maybe I get enough stimulation anyway from my research to get any more from this, and it really is an age effect? Or perhaps my youthful thoughts were, in fact, pretty stupid – and now I don’t need to go down those fruitless routes again?  Maybe its a nostalgia effect – I’m the same as I ever was, but I just don’t know it.  My favourite theory is that its the reduction in social interaction since moving to Aberdeen.  I have the feeling that most ideas are built in conversations, not in sitting quietly.  But I’m no expert – though I’ve read very little about this, I’m not convinced science knows much more than I do…

Anybody else managing to think as they get older?  Do you find your imagination limited to the same old thoughts you always have had, jokes that aren’t funny and never were, ideas that relate only very directly and practically to life?

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