A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Future's So Bright...

I went to the theatre yesterday and watched the new Terminator movie. It was a pretty bad film, but my expectations were low anyway. It was also the latest example of what I believe has become a bit of a trend: films or television shows with stupidly unrealistic depictions of the effects of nuclear weapons (other notable examples being the most recent Indiana Jones installment and Battlestar Galactica). I suppose most of the people involved in the making of these entertainments now are too young to have been much scarred by the Cold War, and so they see nothing jarring in the image of a protagonist staring up at a mushroom cloud as if it’s just another bit of fireworks.

I find this growing ignorance about the implications of nuclear warfare disturbing, especially in a time where I hear serious talk by experts about the feasibility of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, and in which the news that North Korea now has the bomb is overshadowed by the latest developments in Britain's Got Talent. So I am devoting this blog entry to the rather depressing subject of nuclear holocaust. It is surprisingly hard to find much decent literature on the subject that has been written after the 1980s, which explains why the sources I provide seem a bit dated. Also, I apologise in advance to non-American readers for not providing figures in metric units, but unfortunately most of the literature is American.

Blast Effects

The following scenario describes the likely effects of a 1-megaton blast striking a large American city with a population of around 1 million people, and a population density of 13,000 people per square mile. To give some scale, a megaton is equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT, where the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was about 12 kilotons (i.e. 12,000 tons of TNT). In describing the effects of such a nuclear blast, we must also distinguish between a ground burst and an air burst, the latter being capable of more damage.

In a ground burst directed at the city centre, all buildings up to 2 miles from ground zero (an area of 10 square miles) will be completely demolished. This means that almost everyone In this area will likely be killed by having their bodies collide with material objects.

A further mile out from the centre, more buildings will be destroyed and around 50 % of the population will be killed by collision, with a further 40% seriously injured. Thus, in the 3 mile radius from the centre of the blast we can expect the total dead to be around 250,000 people. An air burst would increase this lethality by about 50%, making for a total of 350,000 to 450,000.


Whether a ground burst or an air burst, the strike would produce a mile-wide fireball as hot as the surface of the sun, with a 10-second burst of intense radiant heat. Almost everything within 5 miles of a ground burst (75 square miles) will die of third-degree burns. Scores of thousands more will be badly burned. Besides burns from the immediate blast, additional people will be burned by ignited combustibles. While processing these numbers, keep in mind that there are only around 2000 burn beds in the entire US.


Within one and a half miles of ground zero, anyone in the open would be killed by an initial pulse of gamma radiation, but this is gratuitous, since heat and blast will have killed them anyway.

Dust and debris sucked up in the blast will be irradiated and in a few minutes these will begin to spread as visible fallout. Depending on prevailing weather conditions, radiation during the first 24 hours could lethally dose 100,000 of those remaining. In any case, the city would be rendered lethal to enter, so any “survivors” would have no hope of rescue.


Unfortunately, this scenario is conservative, for the following reasons. First, it assumes a population density of 13,000 people per square mile, but many major US cities are much more densely populated than this. Second, it assumes only one direct hit on the city. But most strategic planning would call for multiple strikes on targeted cities, more in the neighbourhood of six to eight one-megaton warheads, plus more warheads of smaller size. Third, a one-megaton warhead is not nearly the most powerful weapon in the US or Russian nuclear arsenals. For example, the now phased-out Titan IIs yielded 9 megatons, and there are still other weapons with a similar yield. Fourth, the scenario assumes that only the one city is hit. With simultaneous strikes on other cities, the hope of outside help or rescue becomes diminishingly plausible.

In short, a strategically realistic 100-megaton attack on the 16 major US metropolitan areas could be expected to kill 90% of inhabitants. A 200-megaton attack on only military targets in Britain, keeping in mind the proximity of such targets to civilian population centres, would likely kill around two-thirds of that country’s population.

Nuclear Winter

It gets worse. Following the initial nuclear strikes, the skies would be darkened fro three weeks or so by vast clouds of smog created by burning cities, forests, and uncapped oil and gas wells, causing temperatures in the northern hemisphere to drop precipitously. The National Research Council, in a 1985 report to the US Defense Department, estimated a 99% reduction in sunlight, making it 50 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, enough to freeze lakes and reservoirs, cutting off water supplies in many areas. And it’s easy to imagine the effects this change would have on crops.

Other Effects

Radioactive fallout would continue to spread, contaminating people, natural life, and food supplies. Damaged infrastructure would make it impossible to move food supplies (assuming the existence of an undamaged reserve) to areas where it is needed. Thus, many can be expected to starve. Large areas will be further polluted by damaged nuclear, chemical, and other industrial facilities.

With high altitude air bursts we can also expect deterioration of the earth’s protective ozone layer, exposing survivors to larger doses of UV rays, causing blindness, cancers, and burned crops.

Finally, millions of unburied corpses would provide food for rats and radiation-resistant insects, as well as a vector for diseases.

Reality Check

Portraying people staring up calmly at mushroom clouds — unincinerated and unsickened by radiation — is an insult to those of us who spent much of our childhoods worrying about a coming nuclear holocaust, and whose sleeping lives were haunted by recurrent nuclear nightmares. Such ignorantly cavalier portrayals are not so different from those old “information” films from the 1950s we now like to laugh at, in which children are taught that their school desks will shelter them from the warheads raining down on them.

As a North American, I remember losing many nights’ sleep after seeing The Day After (1983). Although frightening enough, even The Day After was more optimistic than the facts warranted. Those who are interested in a more realistic depiction of a nuclear-stricken world might want to watch the 1984 British made-for-television movie Threads.


FINNIS, John, Joseph M. BOYLE, and Germain GRISEZ. Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

KATZ, Arthur M. Life After Nuclear War: The Economic and Social Impact of Nuclear Attacks on the United States. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1982.

Office of Technology Assessment, US Congress. The Effects of Nuclear War (1979). London: Croom Helm, 1980.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Problem of Evil

There are some philosophical problems so old that one wonders whether anything new can be said about them. Indeed, despite the many philosophers still beavering away at them, one wonders if anything new has been said about them for centuries. Usually with such problems, what seems a new argument or position is really an old one which has been given a quick shower, shave, and a new suit, and shoved back into the cocktail party. In other words, we are presented with the same old leftovers, covered over in new-fangled terminology that, when analyzed, turns out to mean the same as the old terminology.

Foremost among these hoary philosophical conundrums is the so-called “problem of evil”. The problem of evil is really only a problem if you are a theist. For those of us who have no substantive theological commitments, it poses no problem at all, and may even make us scratch our heads in wonder at the intellectual capital wasted on it. As a philosophical issue, it stands out in a couple of other respects.

First, despite the fact that real knock-down arguments in philosophy are rarer than unicorns, the anti-theist side of the debate on evil has presented a remarkable number of them. Second, the theist side has produced a remarkable number of really bad arguments, arguments so bad in fact, that one must sometimes question the arguer’s intellectual honesty. And third, the theist side has too often produced arguments that, besides being bad, are infuriating in their glibness and callousness.

The Problem Stated

In its briefest form, the problem of evil can be stated quite simply. It stems from the logical incompatibility of the following three propositions:

1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is morally perfect, or perfectly good.
3. Evil exists in the world.

There are more complicated forms of the problem. We could, for example, add a proposition to the effect that God is omniscient, but the problem would basically remain the same, and omniscience can easily be collapsed into the notion of God’s omnipotence.

As I’ve already said, the problem really represents a challenge to theists. If you don’t believe in God, or at least in the Judeo-Christian God, then you simply deny propositions 1 and 2 and the whole problem vanishes. So, assuming we’re theists, how might we respond to this challenge?

Traditionally, this has been done in a couple of ways. In his 1955 paper “Evil and Omnipotence”, the philosopher J. L. Mackie noted that a common strategy was to redefine “omnipotence” or “morally perfect” in such a way as to make propositions 1 and 2 compatible with proposition 3. Unfortunately, notes Mackie, typically this move has involved surreptitiously watering down the notion of an omnipotent and morally perfect God, which means, in essence, jettisoning proposition 1 or 2 or both. I say “surreptitiously” because theistic philosophers who make this move typically do so while employing every trick of a Jesuitical casuistry to deny that this is what they’re doing.

There is a recent example of this in Peter van Inwagen’s book The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), based on his 2003 Gifford Lectures. I have twice read the book over, and yet for the life of me I cannot figure out how he can claim to have provided any solution to the problem, or indeed how his arguments are any different from scores of previous attempts. Van Inwagen proposes two possible solutions.

The first solution deals with the problem of human evil. This evil, he says, is of a kind that is the result of human free will. Now, free will is itself another example of a hoary old philosophical problem that has yet to be solved. However, for present peace I’ll gladly grant van Inwagen the existence of such free will. Unfortunately, his argument relies on a God who either (i) lacks the power to control the free but evil choices of His human creatures (in which case He is not omnipotent), or (ii) He can but chooses not to prevent such evil choices (in which case we must question His benevolence or moral rectitude).

Van Inwagen’s second solution addresses natural evils, evils that aren’t the result of human choices. After all, there was pain and suffering among animals long before humans existed, so not all evil can be pinned on us. This kind of evil, van Inwagen says, was necessary in the greater scheme of things, for a world without such evils would be what he calls “massively irregular”, requiring constant violation of natural laws by God in order to prevent them. And such massive irregularity is itself a kind of imperfection or “evil”, though presumably of a higher order. It takes little thought to realize that this is a covert denial of proposition 1, that God is omnipotent, for if He was omnipotent, then shouldn’t we expect Him to be able to create a world that was both devoid of natural evil and not massively irregular?


Van Inwagen’s “solutions” are at worst merely foolish. But there is another theistic approach to the problem of evil that is too often so facile as to be morally offensive. This approach, instead of the “bait-and-switch” method of redefining propositions 1 and 2, takes the more swashbuckling route of denying proposition 3. In effect, philosophers who take this approach deny that evil — in the mundane sense of “bad things” — exists. Despite its seeming implausibility, this has historically been the most common approach to the problem.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways this may be done. We may either claim that “Evil is really good in disguise,” or else we may claim that “There are no such things as objective good or evil at all.” I will not discuss this latter claim here. For one thing, it is not a popular move among theists, for obvious reasons (and note that it still effectively involves a denial of proposition 2). For another, it leads us into a problem far greater than the problem of evil, one that poses serious difficulties for theists and non-theists alike. We could call this the “problem of good”, and I will make it the subject of a future posting.

In its most traditional form, the “evil is good in disguise” strategy has been famously adopted by such illustrious names as Leibniz and Pope, and has been viciously (if heavy-handedly) mocked by Voltaire in Candide. The technical name for this approach is theodicy.

Candide was written in the shadow of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (illustrated above), an event which elicited much speculation on the problem of evil. Another less well-known work of the period is Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1757). When I say that theodicy has a tendency to be facile and morally offensive, I have Jenyns’ work foremost in my mind.

For Jenyns, the universe as a whole is perfectly good. Because any seeming particular evils are necessary components of this universal good, in reality they are not real evils at all. Were you born into grinding poverty? Are you living from hand to mouth in a miserable indigence? Well, Jenyns can explain to you how Providence was actually kind to you: “Ignorance, or the want of knowledge and literature, the appointed lot of all born to poverty, and the drudgeries of life, is the only opiate capable of infusing that insensibility which can enable them to endure the miseries of the one and the fatigues of the other. It is a cordial administered by the gracious hand of Providence; of which they ought never to be deprived by an ill-judged and improper education.” In other words, God has kindly made the poor ignorant so that their coarser, less refined souls may better bear their poverty. To educate them would only increase their misery. So you see, everything happens for the greatest good. That something might be done to alleviate your poverty is no part of Jenyns’ theodicy.

In a brilliant review, Samuel Johnson savagely — and quite rightly — tore Jenyns’ Enquiry apart: “Where has this enquirer added to the little knowledge that we had before? He has told us of the benefits of Evil, which no man feels, and relations between distant parts of the universe, which he cannot himself conceive.”

Pastoral Philosophy

Who are philosophers trying to convince when they discuss the problem of evil? Usually they seem to be addressing themselves to their fellow philosophers. Van Inwagen claimed that an ideal argument for or against the problem of evil ought to address an audience of ideally impartial lay agnostics. And yet the very book in which he writes this is obviously aimed at no such audience; it is aimed squarely at other professional philosophers. Perhaps their arguments would make better sense if philosophers came down from the clouds and addressed those who actually suffer great evils, those who have a need for whatever comfort they can peddle. We could call this “pastoral philosophy”.

There are different orders of evil. For a stubbed toe or a career disappointment a theodicy could conceivably offer some solace, but not for, say, the untimely death of a loved one. How would you like it if I told you that your grief is not real, but is rather necessary to a greater good that you don’t get to share in? It is as if I were to mug you and then console you by telling you that the money you fork over will be spent on a great party to which you are not invited.

Such an “explanation” is no comfort at all. How could it be? I would rather a philosopher said to me something like, “Yes, you suffer, and yes, your suffering is the result of a real evil, and it is time, rather than any abstract argument I can offer, which will lessen your pain.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paul Fussell, "The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism"

Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).

In pursuance of my project of reading the works of Dr. Johnson (see the immediately preceding post), I decided I would prepare myself for the task by re-reading another of my favourite books. Paul Fussell is a well-known literary critic who is perhaps most famous for his minor classic, The Great War and Modern Memory. Though much of his work consists of insightful meditations on the subjects of war and social class, his earlier academic career was devoted to the study of eighteenth-century English literature. It is to this earlier phase of his career that The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism belongs.

First, some terminology. For those not familiar with it, the adjective “Augustan” refers to the English literature of roughly the first half of the eighteenth century. It is derived from the name of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, whose reign (33 BC – AD 14) was perceived to have been a golden age for Latin literature, in which the great names of Virgil, Horace, and Livy had their flowering. The eighteenth century was perceived to have been an age in which English writing reached its zenith of elegance and “correctness”.

The Augustan age also happens to coincide with the era popularly known as the Enlightenment, a period in which great advances were made in philosophy, and the natural and social sciences. However, Fussell contends that all was not light and triumphalist optimism. There was a strand running through the century’s literary legacy which was not so sanguine about the new intellectual horizons opening up. This camp saw degeneration instead of progress, and in the ongoing “Battle of the Books” between the Ancients and Moderns it firmly sided with the former. This camp — it was really more of an attitude than an organized movement — Fussell calls "Augustan humanism".

According to Fussell, Augustan humanism was represented in the main by an unbroken line of writers beginning with Jonathan Swift, and running through Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon, to Edmund Burke. Later we shall have reason have reason to quibble with the representativeness of this selection of writers, but first we must get a handle on what were the characteristics of the humanism in Augustan humanism. Fussell lists a dozen, although there is some overlap. I suppose the thing I find most compelling about the book is that these characteristics sketch an attitude towards art and life that is recognizably my own.

Characteristics of Augustan Humanism

1. “The humanist either possesses or affects such broad and historical awareness of actual human nature as to justify grave doubts about the probability of any moral or qualitative ‘progress’” (p. 4)

2. “The humanist believes that most human ‘problems’ cannot be solved” (p. 5)

3. The humanist believes that “the mind and the imagination — what perhaps can be called the symbol-making power — are the quintessential human attributes. This is to insist that man becomes fully human, or properly realized, only when he uses his mind in a uniquely human way” (p. 5)

4. “The humanist betrays so habitual and profound a concern with the act of evaluation that it often grows into what can be described as ‘the evaluative obsession’. This ‘vertical’ cast of mind seems impelled to order everything in rank…. This libido aestmandi is naturally accompanied by hierarchical rather than egalitarian expectations about society and politics” (p. 6)

5. “The humanist is pleased to experience a veneration, which often approaches the elegiac, for the past, a feeling accompanied by a deep instinct for the tested and the proven in the history of human experience” (pp. 6-7)

6. “The humanist assumes that ethics and expression are closely allied. It is this assumption that that makes possible Johnson’s unique fusion of biographical, ethical, and aesthetic criticism in The Lives of the Poets” (p. 7)

7. “The humanist is convinced that man’s primary obligation is the strenuous determination of moral questions; he thus believes that inquiries into the technical operation of the external world (‘science’) constitute not only not distinctly secondary but even irrelevant and perhaps dangerous activities” (p. 7)

8. “The humanist is convinced that human nature, for all its potential dignity, is irremediably flawed and corrupt at the core” (p. 8)

9. “The humanist tends to assume that the world of physical nature is morally neutral and thus largely irrelevant to man’s actual — that is, his moral — existence” (p. 8)

10. “The humanist tends to be suspicious of theories of government or human nature which appear to scant the experienced facts of man’s mysterious complexity. To the humanist, man’s most dangerous temptation is his lust to conceive of his nature as simpler than it is” (p. 9)

11. “The humanist assumes that, because of man’s flaw and his consequent need of redemptive assistance, man’s relation to literature and art is primarily moral and only secondarily aesthetic” (p. 9)

12. “Finally, the humanist believes that man is absolutely unique as a species” (p. 9). He tends to avoid analogies between humans and other animals.

After outlining and explaining what Augustan humanism is, Fussell proceeds to explore how this moral attitude makes itself manifest in the works of his chosen group of writers, particularly through certain recurrent types of imagery. These types are (i) warfare and sieges, (ii) cities and architecture, (iii) clothing and fashion, (iv) insects and other vermin, and (v) roads and journeys. This latter part of the book is interesting to the literary critic, but other readers may wish to skip it.

Fussell’s Literary Representatives

The writer on Fussell’s list who most aptly reflects the Augustan humanist attitude is Samuel Johnson. Fussell admits as much, which is why he lingers most commonly on Johnson’s works. Burke too is an obvious choice. And I can have little quibble with adding Swift to the list, if for no other reason than the rage and moral indignation always shadowed forth in his satire.

The rationale for including certain other writers eludes me. The optimistic Pope of the Essay on Man seems an ill fit with the underlying pessimism of the humanist attitude. I suppose that a selective culling of his work could provide passages that might indicate positions compatible with the humanist attitude, but overall he is in my opinion a strange exemplar.

One would think that Gibbon’s religious heterodoxy should exclude him outright, and perhaps this is why of all the writers Fussell gives him the least space (and while mostly making use of the same few chapters of The Decline and Fall).

I could make a case for adding at least two other authors to Fussell’s team. One is Bishop Berkeley, particularly the Berkeley of Alciphron and Passive Obedience, as well as his contributions to The Guardian.

The other author, I imagine, will sound a strange addition to those only familiar with the popular image of him. That author is Lord Shaftesbury. To those who — like Fussell — have not read him but have read of him, Shaftesbury is the philosopher par excellence of optimism and Deism. When one reads his letters and private journals one quickly understands that his supposed optimism (which has been much exaggerated) is largely a public persona he adopted to encourage his readers to moral virtue. In reality, few moralists of the age had more awareness of the frailty of human nature than Shaftesbury. As for his Deism, it is true that he was suspicious of organized religion and the clergy, believing them to be parasitic on some of the worst aspects of our nature. But this is an attitude perfectly in keeping with Augustan humanism. Furthermore, he did affirm the social usefulness of religion, adhering to Locke’s dictum that only the few can understand; the majority must believe.

And most importantly, Shaftesbury better exemplifies characteristics 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, and 12 than almost any of the authors Fussell considers. There is good reason why contemporary readers could not tell Shaftesbury and Swift apart. On the few occasions that Fussell does mention him, Shaftesbury is dismissed with a contempt that can only come from not having actually read him.

Nonetheless, despite my criticisms, the book is beautifully written and restores a much-deserved dignity to a group of writers, many of whom (e.g. Johnson and Burke) have been unjustly characterized as conservative and reactionary cranks.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Look on My Works, Ye Mighty..."

Some time ago my grandmother gave me a complete 1823 edition of Samuel Johnson’s works in twelve volumes. In their day they were beautifully bound, but unfortunately the leather had become brittle, so the set needed to be rebound. I decided upon an interesting project: I would rebind the entire set, but on condition that I read each volume after binding. Thus, by the end I would not only have an attractive set of books, but I will be able to pat myself on the back for having read Dr. Johnson’s entire life’s work. This is no small feat. For one thing, it’s a lot of reading. For another, Johnson is very much an acquired taste (one which I hope to explore further in a future posting). In any case, I press on.

At present, I am reading the second volume, and binding a third. The volume I’m currently reading contains Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), which he wrote in order to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral. It is a wonderful little novel, far deeper and more serious than the smarmy Voltaire’s Candide. I was particularly struck by chapter 32, in which Rasselas and his party explore the Egyptian pyramids. The philosopher Imlac expounds upon these wonders as follows:

“No reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security.” A large part of the wonder such an edifice evokes comes from its very uselessness. Its very lack of functional utility points like a chorus toward some hidden truth about human nature.

Imlac continues, “I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid…. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!” A story wouldn’t be Johnson’s if it didn’t come with a moral. The moral of this one is that human desiring is without limit, and as such, is futile. Vanitas vanitatum...

One thing that I noticed about this passage is its similarity in theme to one in the book Le pain et le cirque, by the French historian Paul Veyne. In reflecting on the nature of the power of the Roman emperors, Veyne considers Trajan’s column. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a tall phallic symbol, still standing in Rome, with a continuous bas-relief sculpture of the emperor Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia winding up the entire length of the column. The carving is exquisite. But again, like the pyramids, we are struck by its utter uselessness as an object. It was not made to do anything except to aggrandize the emperor.

And yet, as Veyne remarks, in a sense, it fails to even do this: the column is so tall that much of the carving is not visible to a spectator looking up — as she must needs have done — from the ground. Now, we could, as Imlac did, ascribe this shortcoming simply to Trajan’s boredom with his power and his desire simply to see a great number of workers labour on his behalf. But Veyne has a different take on the matter.

For Veyne, the column is designed to impress, but not in a straightforward way. Rather, we are meant to be impressed by the column’s obvious attempt not to impress us. Think about it. The column was presumably carved with the intention of impressing someone, otherwise so much money and labour would not have been expended on it. And yet, it seems that it was not intended to impress us, for we cannot even see most of it. In other words, it was a grand example of what Thorstein Veblen famously dubbed “conspicuous consumption”. Note that its ability to impress depends upon a kind of doublethink on the part of its audience: we are supposed to think that the emperor is not trying to impress us by building a very impressive work.

There is another possibility, not considered by Veyne. Perhaps Trajan was emphasizing the divine nature of the office of emperor, by making a studied show of not communicating with us, but with the very gods themselves? It would be interesting to find out if he was successful at whatever he was intending, and to find out what the Roman plebs themselves made of it.

Such works ought to put us in mind of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias (1818), which I cannot refrain from reproducing here for the edification (pardon the pun) of my readers:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Animal Rights and Animal Virtues

For reasons too complicated to do full justice to here, I do not believe in animal rights. In part, this is because I don’t even believe in human rights, as I explained in a previous posting (“Why I Am Not a Libertarian”, April 17, 2009). It is also because I don’t believe that animals have the same moral status as human beings: to have a right is also to be able to recognize the similar rights of others. Animals are incapable of respecting the rights of others, whether animal or human. (Of course, small children and the mentally incompetent are similarly incapable of recognizing rights, but these are complications we don’t have space to explain away here).

Some have made the case that animals have moral rights, and that for this reason it is wrong to kill and eat them. But when you stop to think about it, this line of argument is a bit strange, for animals can kill and eat other animals without having violated their rights. How can this be? It seems that unlike human rights, animal rights do not have corresponding duties. If I have a right not to be killed and eaten by you, then you have a corresponding duty not to kill and eat me. But this scheme breaks down in the case of animals, for animals cannot be said to owe duties to anything or anyone. This is why I claim that animals have a different moral status from human beings. If we wish to speak of animals as having “rights”, we must mean something different by this term than we mean when we apply it to ourselves.

Perfect and Imperfect Duties

There is a traditional distinction in moral philosophy between what are called perfect and imperfect duties. I have a perfect duty not to murder and eat you. It is perfect in the sense that it is not up to my individual conscience whether or not to do it. Refraining from murdering you is not merely something it would be nice if I did. Morally speaking, I can be compelled to live up to my perfect duties. For the most part, duties of justice are perfect duties.

On the other hand, giving to charity is an imperfect duty, a duty of benevolence. It would be nice if I gave to charity, but I cannot be compelled to do so. (Of course, some cynics and libertarians would say that in the case of government social welfare schemes, this is precisely what is being done: citizens are in effect being compelled to contribute to a government-administered charity.)

I would contend that if it is at all proper to speak of animals as having rights, this is only because the corresponding duties are imperfect duties. When I cause unnecessary suffering or death to animals, I do not do them an injustice (which would be the case if I did it to a human). But it does represent a failure of benevolence on my part: I cannot claim for myself the virtue of kindness if I cause unnecessary suffering to animals. Where animal rights talk goes wrong is in trying to attribute perfect rights to animals, when at most they can only be assigned imperfect rights.

As a matter of virtue (rather than of justice), the historically-recent concern for the welfare of animals is a good thing, because it manifests an increasing concern with virtuous conduct. Put another way, it is an example of that rare thing: actual moral progress. Thus, although I don’t believe we can be, say, legally compelled to become vegetarians, to be concerned about the welfare of beings capable of suffering manifests some degree of moral virtue. This is, however, not to claim that animal suffering is the same as human suffering. It is not. But it is still suffering worthy of moral consideration.

In a way, cruelty to animals says more about humans as moral beings than it does about animals as moral beings, which is why the term “animal rights” is rather a misnomer. What is important is not so much what happens to the animals; rather it’s what our conduct towards animals does to us. Perhaps this is why Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), assigned the butchering of animals to public slaves: “From thence the beastes be brought in kylled, and cleane washed by the hands of their bondemen. For they [the Utopians] permytte not their frie citizens to accustome there selfes to the killing of beastes; through the use whereof they thinke that clemencie, the genteleste affection of our nature, doth by little and little decaye and peryshe.”

Now, More’s is rather an implausible position, as it would mean that butchers are somehow less human than the rest of us (and we do not escape moral blame by assigning our dirty work to others, be they slaves or free men). But it should give us some pause. It is not so much the bare killing of animals for use that lessens us. Rather, it is the way it is carried out. We may kill, but we should not do so without a due sense of awe and reverence. Following the philosopher Roger Scruton, and if I may be excused the use of an outmoded word, we ought to have a sense of piety towards the killing of animals, which is missing in phenomena like modern factory farming.

Unanswered Questions

If my duties towards animals are only imperfect, then why is it that I can be fined or jailed for mistreating pets (but not wild animals?). All I can really say here is that the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is not exact in all cases. Perhaps a pet is reasonably considered to be a member of one’s family, and so beating your pet is akin to beating a child or spouse. Or perhaps in the case of a pet, you have voluntarily taken up certain duties by the very act of adopting a pet, thereby converting imperfect into perfect duties. (But then, to whom is the duty owed? For I have claimed that we cannot owe perfect duties to animals.)

Or perhaps some forms of cruelty — cruelty being a form of vice rather than of injustice proper — are so disgusting and heinous that they seem to demand societal intervention. The idea here is that although one normally has the right to engage in vice, there are depths of viciousness to which one might sink that demand some kind of compulsion on the part of society. But I don’t yet have a full explanation for this phenomenon.

Some time ago I heard on the radio about a US Army program in which pigs were shot, blown up, bayoneted, or what have you. The idea was that such simulated wounds could be used to train medics to treat human combat wounds. But maybe we should ask what is meant by “simulated” wounding in this context? Maybe there is so little difference in viciousness between this and doing the same to other humans, that we can only call this gratuitous cruelty. Of course, that same army also trains its personnel to shoot, blow up, and bayonet other human beings, and perhaps that is the real travesty.