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My view is that ethical argument is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. You point out quite rightly that such instincts often are mistaken. But then the need is for pointing out the mistakes. In the 18 th century it was a capital offense in some American states for a human being to have sexual intercourse with an animal. One of the grounds for this harsh punishment was a belief that such intercourse led to the birth of monsters.

The belief was unsound, and showing that it was unsound undermined the case for punishment. To the extent that lack of consideration for animal suffering is rooted in factual errors, pointing out those errors can change our intuitions concerning the consideration that we owe animals. Descartes believed that animals felt no pain—that the outward expressions which we took to reveal pain were deceptive. People who believed this would have no truck with laws forbidding cruelty to animals.

We now have good reason to believe that Descartes was mistaken. We likewise have good reason to believe that the Aztecs were mistaken about the efficacy of human sacrifice and that Nazi ideology, like other racist ideologies, rested on misconceptions about evolutionary and racial biology.

To accept Cartesian, or Aztec, or Nazi premises and argue merely against the inferences from them would be futile. To me the most important and worthwhile part of your influential book Animal Liberation is the information it conveys partly by photographs about the actual suffering of animals.

This information is a valuable corrective to unsound and ignorant thinking. But arguments that do not identify factual errors that underlie or buttress our moral instincts do nothing to undermine those instincts; nor should they. I contended in my reply to your first statement that it is wrong to give as much weight to a dog's pain as to an infant's pain, and that it is wrong to kill one person to save chimpanzees even if a human life is only times as valuable as a chimpanzee's life. I rested these judgments on intuition. Against this intuition you have no factual reply, as you would if my intuition were founded on a belief that dogs feel no pain and that chimpanzees have no mentation.

I said too that the logic of your argument, again at war with our deepest intuitions, was to prefer the life of a dog to the life of a person with Alzheimer's disease. You reply that we should consider the feelings of a person who, knowing that he may someday have the disease, is distressed at the thought of being killed when the disease progresses to a certain point. Fair enough; but what about people, and there are many, who would like to be able to sign an enforceable contract to be killed if they become demented?

Such a contract would be unenforceable, and the physician who honored it by killing the Alzheimer's patient would be a murderer. The moral intuition that powers this result may be vulnerable to factual challenge as we learn more about Alzheimer's, as more people suffer from it, and as people come to accept more than they do today the role of physicians as "angels of mercy.

I would like, finally, to correct any impression I may have given that I am seeking to justify "giving preference to the suffering of humans, just because it is humans, and not other animals, who are suffering. I do not say that our preferring human beings to other animals is justified—only that it is a fact deeply rooted in our current thinking and feeling, a fact based on beliefs that can change, but not a fact that can be shaken by philosophy. I particularly do not mean to say that we are justified in giving preference to the suffering of humans "just because it is humans" who are suffering.

It is because we are humans that we put humans first. If we were cats we would put cats first, regardless of what philosophers might tell us. Your second response leads our discussion into a fundamental question about the nature of ethics. But before I go into that, let me comment on the issue you raise in your first paragraph. Assuming that there are alternative methods of producing meat that would substantially reduce animal suffering at trivial cost, you say that you would like to see these methods spread, but you do not see a justification for coercion.

In other words, you do not want to see existing American farming methods prohibited, as many of them already are in Europe. You are prepared to leave this change to consumer choice. That approach would, if carried through consistently, also lead us to reject many other laws, for example those prohibiting the use of child labor or requiring factories to meet basic standards of occupational health and safety.

On this point—in contrast to our initial exchange on the moral status of animals—it seems that my position is more in keeping with common moral views than yours. Of course, I would not argue that this shows that I am right and you are wrong! Rather, I think that there are many cases in which the costs of coercion can be outweighed by the benefits it brings to the weak and the vulnerable.

Because many people, regrettably, think only of their own interests, there will always be a market for goods made by unscrupulous producers that are cheaper than those manufactured with greater concern for the welfare of workers, animals, or the environment. It is within the proper scope of democratic government to exclude from the market those who do not meet standards that the majority considers desirable.

Or so I would argue. Let me now bring into this discussion your skepticism about the power of ethical argument, which you say "is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. Perhaps the proper scope of democratic government is one such issue. In that case, don't we need ethical argument to resolve the disagreement between us on whether the state should prohibit methods of animal production that cause great suffering for trivial benefits?

Double debunking: Glenn Williamson on human-chimp DNA similarity and genes unique to human beings

But in any case, I don't accept the claim that ethical argument "is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. Do you mean that you can offer some reasons against the claim that ethical argument should be allowed to overrule tenacious moral instincts? If so, doesn't that indicate that reasoning, or argument, is the ultimate source of authority in ethics? But if that isn't what those three words mean, what could they mean? That we have a tenacious moral instinct against allowing ethical argument to overrule tenacious moral instincts?

I doubt that that is true, and if it were, it would be question-begging to appeal to it. Perhaps this seems like a mere debating trick that rests on three words that you slipped in without too much thought. But the fact that you did use those words just shows how difficult it is, even for you, to be a thorough-going moral skeptic. Our moral instincts are facts about ourselves and cannot be ignored, but, as I said before, we cannot just take them for granted. You did not answer my question about how, in a deeply racist society, you think we are able to argue for equal concern for all people, irrespective of race.

We are reasoning beings, capable of seeking broader justifications. There may be some who are ruthless enough to say that they care only for their own interests or for the interests of those of their own group, and if anyone else gets in the way, too bad for them; but many of us seek to justify our conduct in broader, more widely acceptable terms. That is how ethical argument gets going, and why it can examine, criticize, and in the long run, overturn, tenacious moral instincts.

Think how far we have come, in a relatively short time, in regard to matters like racial integration, contraception, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, suicide, and many other areas in which moral instincts seemed very strong and very tenacious. It seems very dubious that all these changes have come about simply because we have discovered new facts, and if that is your claim, you owe it to us to tell us what the new facts were, and why they led to changes in moral attitudes.

To return now to the topic with which we began, you have made it clear that you are not seeking to justify the greater consideration we give to human beings over other animals, but merely to say that this preference is "a fact deeply rooted in our current thinking and feeling, a fact based on beliefs that can change but not a fact that can be shaken by philosophy. Almost every time I go to a conference discussing issues about animals, someone tells me that Animal Liberation changed their life and led them to become a vegetarian, or an animal activist, or both.

You may say that this is because the book gave them some new factual information about how we treat animals.

Wise chimp

I don't deny that this information contributes importantly to the book's impact, but my impression is that for many people the ethical argument was also crucial. Many of the people who changed their lives as a result of reading the book were not animal lovers, or even particularly interested in animals, or sympathetic to their needs, before reading the book.

Almost all of them enjoyed eating meat, and at least one that I recall owned a shop selling leather goods! So their interests were not leading them to become vegetarians, and while I cannot prove that it was the ethical argument that moved them, that is what many of them say, and it does seem the most obvious explanation for the book's success. American children are part of the American community, as a matter both of law and of love. We think it is better for them and for the society as a whole that they should be in school rather than working.

We do not consider them income-earning assets of their parents.

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This has become a deep moral intuition in our society; it is also supported by pragmatic arguments. A more difficult question is whether, by refusing to import goods made with child labor, we should try to coerce foreign countries to adopt our moral norms. Child labor used not to be considered wrong, but that was at a time when few people received an education and when widespread poverty required that all able-bodied persons, of whatever age, be put to work.

To the extent that these conditions continue to obtain in Third World nations, it is not obvious that we maximize utility to use your preferred criterion of social welfare by seeking to stamp out child labor through boycotts of goods made with it. And I am surprised that you treat as normative what "the majority consider desirable"; for the majority also desire to eat meat. But all that is an aside. The principal issue you raise is the role of ethical argument. You ask how one can argue against racism in a "deeply racist" society. My answer is, by pointing to whatever fallacious beliefs undergird its racism.

If its racism rests not on false beliefs but on material interest, argument will be impotent. There was plenty of argument against Negro slavery before , but it took a Civil War to end the practice. You ask how it is that our moral norms regarding race, homosexuality, nonmarital sex, contraception, and suicide have changed in recent times if not through ethical argument. This is a large question to which I cannot do justice in the space allotted me. But let me note, first, that philosophers have not been prominent in any of the movements to which you refer.

As far as our changing attitudes toward sex are concerned, the motive forces were again not philosophical or, even, at root, ideological. They were material. As the economy shifted from manufacturing heavy, dirty work to services lighter, cleaner , as contraception became safer and more reliable, as desire for large families diminished the substitution of quality for quantity of children , and as the decline in infant mortality allowed women to reduce the number of their pregnancies yet still hit their target rate of reproduction, both the demand for women in the labor market and the supply of women in the labor market rose.

With women working more and having as a consequence greater economic independence, they demanded and obtained greater sexual independence as well.


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Nonmarital, nonprocreative sex, including therefore homosexual sex, began to seem less "unnatural" than it had. At the same time, myths about homosexual recruitment were exploded; homosexuality was discovered to be genetic or in any event innate rather than a consequence of a "life style" choice; and so hostility to homosexuals diminished.

The history of our changing sexual mores is more complex than this, but this sketch will give a flavor of how I prefer to explain social change. Ethical argument plays no role in the explanation.

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You say that some readers of Animal Liberation have been persuaded by the ethical arguments in the book, and not just by the facts and the pictures. But if so, it is probably so only because these readers do not realize the radicalism of the ethical vision that powers your view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save chimpanzees.

If Animal Liberation had emphasized these implications of your utilitarian philosophy, it would have had many fewer persuaded readers; and likewise if it had sought merely to persuade our rational faculty, and not to stir our empathetic regard for animals. This "Dialogue" has been both a pleasure and an enlightening experience. In drawing it to a close, I shall begin by clearing up two misrepresentations of my views in your last message, and then I shall try to pull together some conclusions about the differences between us.

You suggest that I attribute normative significance to "what the majority consider desirable," and that this is inconsistent with my arguments against eating meat. But what I said was: "It is within the proper scope of democratic government to exclude from the market those who do not meet standards that the majority consider desirable. There is no implication that the majority is right. There would be something odd about a democratic government prohibiting the eating of meat if the majority of its citizens were strongly and consistently in favor of meat-eating, but this says nothing about the rights and wrongs of meat-eating itself.

Democratic governments often make bad decisions, even though the decisions have been properly made in accordance with the principles of democracy. You also attribute to me the peculiar position that "provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save chimpanzees.

Even if the words "1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being" can be given a clear sense, I have never said that mental ability can be aggregated in this way so as to decide which lives should be saved. On the contrary, in books like Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death I have suggested that the ability to see oneself as existing over time, with a past and a future, is an important part of what makes killing some beings more seriously wrong than killing others. So if having only 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being means that an animal lacks that capacity, then there are grounds to reject the mathematical approach that you describe.

Now to the main thread of our discussion. My opening argument was that we do wrong when we give animals less consideration, simply because they are not human, than we give to members of my own species. In response you indicated that this is contrary to a deep moral intuition, and then asserted that ethical argument "is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. I asked you why you made the normative claim, and how you would defend it, but in response you focused on the factual claim. Let me emphasize, therefore, that these are two quite different claims. On the factual claim, much depends how this is formulated.

That ethical argument often struggles in vain against tenacious moral instincts is clearly true—indeed it contains an element of tautology, since if the instincts yielded easily, they would not be tenacious. Yet my own experience, amounting now to more than 30 years of developing ethical arguments on controversial issues, convinces me that ethical argument is sometimes effective even against deep-seated moral views.

I do not, by the way, limit the idea of "ethical argument" to "arguments made by academic ethicists. If it were evident that no ethical arguments ever moved anyone to change their deep-seated moral intuitions, then there would be little point in discussing the normative claim, that is, whether we should be moved by ethical arguments to reject these intuitions. But since this is not evident, or at least not to me, the normative claim becomes important, and I still want to know why you think that ethical argument should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts.

What ethical view can lie behind that claim? Are you prepared to give reasons for it? If so, you are engaging in ethical argument yourself. Perhaps, however, you will refuse to defend the claim that it would be wrong for ethical argument to be effective against tenacious moral instincts. That would be consistent with some of the things you say, in which you sound like a tough-minded moral skeptic, a kind of modern-day Thrasymachus, who dismisses all of ethics as simply a fraud, covering up more selfish interests.

Complete moral skepticism is, certainly, one way of meeting the ethical arguments I have made on behalf of animals, but it achieves that objective at a very high cost, because it means that you cannot make any other ethical arguments either, for example, against racism or homophobia in a society with deep-seated racist or homophobic moral intuitions that do not rest on any factual errors. Note that if you are really a skeptic about ethics, you must conclude not just that these arguments will be ineffective but also that there are no grounds for saying that the racists and homophobes are wrong.

If you have to go to these lengths to resist my arguments for a new ethical status for animals, then at least as far as this exchange is concerned, I'm prepared to rest my case and hope that few readers will go along with your far-reaching skepticism about ethics. I am not a moral skeptic in the sense of believing that moral beliefs have no effect on human behavior.

I am merely skeptical that such beliefs can be changed by philosophical arguments especially those of academic philosophers, given the sheltered character of the modern academic career in the United States and other wealthy liberal countries , as distinct from being changed by experience, by changes in material circumstances, by the demonstrated success or failure of particular moral principles as means of coping with the problems of life, and by personal example, charismatic authority, and appeals to emotion. In yesterday's exchange I gave examples of how moral principles, for example regarding sex, are changed by such things, and I questioned whether academic philosophy had played any significant role in the changes I discussed.

Although you are correct that the efficacy and the soundness of moral arguments are analytically distinct issues, they are related. One reason moral arguments are ineffective in changing behavior is their lack of cogency—their radical inconclusiveness—in a morally diverse society such as ours, where people can and do argue from incompatible premises. But there is something deeper. Moral argument often appears plausible when it is not well reasoned or logically complete, but it is almost always implausible when it is logical.

An illogical utilitarian a "soft" utilitarian, we might call him or her is content to say that pain is bad, that animals experience pain, so that, other things being equal, we should try to alleviate animal suffering if we can do so at a modest cost. You, a powerfully logical utilitarian, a "hard" utilitarian, are not content with such pablum. Snuffamin Franklin works closely with the Fed to ensure their most important data is well taken care of.

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