For some reason, all my posts seem to be Ethics and Morals issues. Sorry about that.

So my brother attended a colloqium lecture on species-ism, which is basically what it sounds like. The speaker was saying that it's wrong to discriminate animals. And he was, as you could guess, a devout vegan.

I know Athiest Nexus has a lot of strong vegetarians/vegans and a lot of carnivores as well. The reasons for both have been debated often. Species-ism, however, is a completely different genre.

In particular, I wonder how making the decision to be vegan isn't completely species-ist in and of itself. The moral reasoning of many vegetarians and vegans is that we can make a conscious decision not to eat our fellow creatures and live just fine. But humans are animals, and I've heard this argument from meat eaters, but the general defense is that we're smarter, we have more logical and ethical capabilities and therefore we have more responsiblity and more choice. I think that's true, but I think it's also species-ism! If we're saying that we're above eating animals, we're still putting ourselves above the animals, are we not? Again, this isn't really a vegetarian/meaty discussion, I respect both decisions.  But is species-ism something you could get behind? Does it even make sense?

There are the other obvious arguments, such as the fact that you kill animals every day, and the majority of us are species-ist in how we don't care if we step on a bug but we certainly do if we step on a cat. We don't flinch when we kill living bacteria with our hand sanitizer, but when you shoot Bambi's mum we've got a problem. Maybe the whole purpose is to get beyond that, or maybe it's about just doing what you can. I don't know. But I don't really understand it.

Thoughts? Arguments? Rude remarks? Compliments on my adequate grammar?  Does speciesism contradict vegetarianism? Is it a viable idea?


















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I believe that mirror neurons evolved as a way for the brain to more efficiently process game theory. Theory of mind is important in game theory--without it, one cannot predict what others might do. Call it Game Theory of Mind, if you like.

I question where the concept of "inherent good" comes from. I don't see how "idealistic morality" can arise except out of game theory. It's simpler to codify certain rules rather than to reason them anew from first principles in every instance. This is, I believe, where rights come from. We repeatedly run into scenarios with similar setups and similar outcomes, so we set down some guidelines like "no punishment without due process" and thus rights are born. But rights require repeated trials of moral "experiments" before we decide that they should be upheld. And for that to happen, we have to have some kind of social compact in the first place, which most animals simply don't participate in, owing to incapacity or disinclination.

Morality is not as simple as "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". It is not a simple quid pro quo, because it is not so nakedly transactional. It is not a simple quid pro quo because we are smart enough to look into the future and into the past and calculate a net present value. Morality is actuarial, not transactional. It is more along the lines of "I'll scratch your back today because I think that will predispose you to scratch somebody else's back, who in turn might be more inclined to scratch somebody else's back, ad infinitum, until we have a self-sustaining mutual back-scratching society, aka a social contract". It is an infinite series of individual kindnesses that converges on a net positive for all concerned. Note that the net positive need not be large in order for it to be a successful evolutionary adaptation. It can be as simple as keeping the young'uns toward the center of the herd so the predators have to get thru the outer ring of big, tough bulls.

To directly address your examples, the usual rationale for prohibiting the torturing of enemy combatants is not that it is inherently good to do so, but that it will avoid provoking enemies from returning the mistreatment when they capture your guys. It certainly isn't about the potential for switching sides. Similarly with working to prevent prison rape. The primary rationale for campaigning against prison rape (or any crime by one prisoner against another) is precisely the possibility that we might end up in prison ourself one day. It is at least an admission that a person does not give up all their rights when they go to prison. It is as well an extension of due process rights--nobody in a modern society is sentenced to be raped when they go to prison. Either way, these rights are simple outgrowths of "do unto others". They are definitely an attempt to protect ourselves just in case it ever happens to us. People who think it will never happen to them have tiny, broken imaginations, and correspondingly little empathy (like a lot of animals). By protecting the rights of prisoners, we bolster the protection of our own rights in potential situations we hope will never arise. This is where our "innate sense of basic justice or fairness" comes from--we wouldn't want it to happen to us if we were in that position. This is what empathy is for; it guides us to make decisions that enhance the overall net benefits to society, which is to say, us, ourselves.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that veganism is a case where empathy goes a bit overboard. Vegans apply empathy where it doesn't really provide much net benefit for "signatories" to their social contract. I don't think that hurts anybody, so I don't really mind if vegans personally avoid harming other animals. In fact, for a lot of peripheral reasons, I think eating less meat is probably a net benefit to my social contract (less resource use, better health, etc), but this does not arise out of beneficial potential actions of the animals so spared, and is thus not directly a moral consideration. I think veganism is a benign misapplication of morality. Until assholes like PETA suggest that the donkey is the big loser in the terrorist bombing incident.

The fundamental problem with arguments from "innate moral sense" is that they simply beg the question of where that "innate moral sense" comes from in the first place. By grounding morality in an actuarial game theory of mind rooted in evolutionarily adaptive survival strategies, we can answer this question without resort to mysticism or to vague assertions about "human nature". It is a matter of human nature, but we can be more precise than that. We can make sense of where that human nature comes from, because we can see how it benefits humans, as well as other species who have also figured out the rudiments of game theory of mind. Thus human exceptionalism is refuted, but so is the idea that all animals are equal under morality.

I suppose I really should write a book, but then I'd have to have endnotes and be all scholarly and shit.
Your arguments are very well-argued (and highly persuasive), and I'll admit I'm about 90% convinced you're right. There are a few lingering issues that are still bothering me, however...

First of all, I think it's important to separate the "whys" from the "oughts", which have gotten a little confused (for me, at least). If we grant that human morality is based in game theory, that doesn't necessarily justify a moral system based on it. That is, it explains the "how this happened" issue, but not the "this is justified because" one. Same for our apparently hard-wired senses of empathy and fairness - those are explanations of why we do what we do, but aren't necessarily justifications.

So, I think that game theory makes for an excellent explanation of how we got the morality we have now, but it's harder for me to say that it is necessarily justified, or morally ideal.

Maybe I'm still not understanding you, or maybe there's some deeper disagreement between us that's getting in the way, but I'm still not seeing how game theory would prevent discrimination between groups: the actual calculations may be fairly complex, but essentially it comes down to a selfish impulse, does it not? That is, you're forming a social contract because, eventually, you personally will benefit from it. If that's the case, then why would it be a contradiction of a game theory-based ethic to create an out-group with which your social contract does not apply? If your side is the most powerful, then in the end your group will achieve a disparative relationship with the out-group with your group being the beneficiary.

Now, it may be that some people would refuse to do this in practice, but from the perspective of the game theory-based morality, wouldn't that be something akin to a cognitive bias or fallacy? That is, the moral shortcuts we usually take, like "don't cause unnecessary harm", would be obstructing the moral ideal, not supporting it - and thus our responsibility would be to ignore those biases in favor of "correct" moral behaviors, which in this case would include discrimination.

If, on the other hand, you're simply saying that morality evolved as a result of game theory, and not arguing it as a moral ideal, then I don't see how this would be an effective criticism of such built-in moral imperatives as fairness or the "no unnecessary harm" principle. That is, that if thanks to game theory, we have evolved a number of moral rules, and those, then, are the ideal, I don't see how it would be a criticism of the moral rules to say that they contradict game theory, when it would in fact be game theory that created them.

I also take some issue with your counterargument that the only reason people fight for civil rights is because they personally expect some return on it - maybe I'm unimaginative, but I sincerely doubt that I will ever spend a significant amount of time in jail, not least because I have never committed a crime and don't intend to, and I've never even known someone that has spent time in jail. Most people, in fact, don't. That doesn't mean that I am unconcerned about prisoner's rights.

Those are only a couple of examples, as I said out of an almost innumerable amount. Perhaps many of them are really about promoting individual self-interest, but I find this reasoning unpersuasive in the aggregate: it's just much more efficient to assume that people really are capable of the occasional unselfish act, or aren't acting primarily because of some expected eventual return - whether that's from that particular person you've helped, or society in general. It seems obvious that at least sometimes people do things simply because they feel that they are right, even when they personally expect to only lose something as a result.

So, to sum up, it seems like your argument is caught in kind of a catch-22: either game theory is the moral "ideal", in which case at least some things that seem clearly immoral would be promoted; or game theory merely helped create our moral ideals, which seem to me would have to be extended to most non-human animals if they're to be applied consistently.
I apologize in advance for publishing the first draft of my book in forum comment format. And for the lack of endnotes. I'm too lazy to find a publisher. And to research the background material that informs this hypothesis, though Richard Dawkins drove thru these weeds more than thirty years ago in The Selfish Gene, albeit not from an omnivore/herbivore debate standpoint.

Well, the problem with thinking that something is obvious, of course, is that it often isn't. I would think it obvious that the justification for a morality based on game theory of mind is that it works. It pays off. It leads to the most beneficial outcome for the most players most of the time in the long run. This leads to a feedback loop in which participating animals are selected for their ability to play the game well, such that the game itself becomes ingrained in our genes and culturally transmitted mores. Poor players are bred out of the system, at least on average, partly by being shunned as immoral and partly by simply losing the game. Note that this means that even those who cheat the system become more adept at playing--they become better liars, better frauds. Poor players become cranks, outcasts, homeless, poor. This is, in fact, what we see around us. Humans are excellent liars. They are also, for the most part, reasonably honorable and cooperative. Dawkins mentions a computer simulation of morality in The Selfish Gene (I think it's called Tit for Tat), in which a stable system settles out with a certain percentage of cheaters being tolerated. Again, this seems to match what we see in real life. The bottom line is that game theory of mind has worked well enough to produce the system of morality that most of us instinctively adhere to. We are moral because it is a successful survival strategy more often than not, and that's all it takes to tip the evolutionary scales.

Does there need to be additional justification, apart from demonstrated success at providing benefit and avoiding harm to the participants? If so, why? Does any system need to be ideal? Doesn't it just have to be good enough to keep us using it? What would it mean for a system of morality to be ideal, in practice? How would you be able to tell that the system we inhabit isn't ideal if it is, in fact, producing better results than the alternatives that have been tried? How would you be able to tell that a moral system wasn't ideal if any ideal system necessarily included warts to accommodate reality? You'd see some result that wasn't "ideal", but you wouldn't be able to know for sure that it wasn't simply your turn to take it in the shorts as part of the overall beneficial average. We know that the "system" of morality pushed in the Bible is not ideal because it fails rather badly to live up to how moral people actually live their lives in the real world. It clearly leads to worse overall outcomes when applied in practice, as we can see by observing such atrocities as Sharia law, or such wasted motion as the obsessive-compulsive dance of highly observant Judaism (there is an entire industry devoted to allowing people to manipulate modern conveniences on the Sabbath while tricking God into thinking that you are not actually "working" on the Sabbath). Measured by the yardstick of modern morality, Biblical and Quranic morality clearly comes up short, but do we have another system that has worked better than the current system against which to measure it? I doubt it. Morality is improved by feeling our way along, just like any other evolutionary process. It may be emotionally unsatisfying somehow that game theory of mind is all there is to morality, but really, morality is just very simple. Do unto others. Go along to get along. What goes around comes around. Is there really a reason to insist that there is more to it? Where does this system fail to explain the results we see or to produce the results we want?

I assert that the great moral failings of past and present are the result of people choosing not to play the cooperation game and instead pursuing predatory practices. This is what I mean by lions and tigers and bears playing a different game than we do. They are predators only. Their survival strategy is "eat or be eaten". When people play by those rules, it turns out badly for everybody, including the predators. Robber barons on Wall Street find out that impoverishing Main Street deprives them of their customers. We learned this lesson in the Great Depression, and sadly, are having to learn it again in the Great Recession. Turns out you can't actually have your cake and eat it too. Surprise! Where I can see an argument that the current system is less than ideal is in those cases where society doesn't punish powerful predators harshly enough. On the other hand, punishing too harshly limits freedoms and ends up feeling like a societal straitjacket, which is also a less positive outcome. As well, it is only in the age of mechanization that it has been possible for predators to assault so many to such an extent in such a short time. I'd be amazed if our evolutionarily advantageous system of morality could evolve rapidly enough to address such distortions in a mere 200 years, particularly since mechanization is getting faster at an accelerating rate.

But accelerating mechanization does cut both ways. This is why it's becoming rarer for caste-based systems such as slavery to survive in the modern era. This is why discrimination against out-groups is increasingly discouraged. As our world shrinks due to increasingly wide and rapid communications, we live closer and closer to out-groups. Discriminatory practices and people have rapidly shrinking shadows to hide in. For all its failures as a medium, television has brought us all closer together in unexpected ways. The black civil rights movement was televised, as is the gay rights movement. It's harder to hate the "other" when they're in our living rooms on a regular basis. It's even harder to wage war, despite the aberration of Bush's stupidity in Iraq, thanks to the fact that the Vietnam war was televised. The internet is the latest acceleration of global shrinkage. Now it's exposing the alarming stupidity of the Republibaggertarian reactionaries. These people are a bad joke, and dumb enough to be proud of it. That is their undoing (though perhaps I'm a bit too optimistic about that). As opposed to the lions and tigers and bears of Wall Street, the Republibaggertarians are the chickens and fish of the morality game, not quite smart enough to be good players. I'm not convinced it would be immoral to eat them. OK, that's just a joke. They can be educated, and they're not incapable of doing a good turn if they shut off Fox News long enough to help somebody out of a jam.

So out-groups have always been a violation of game theory of mind morality, because they have always been the result of shortsightedness. Now we can see farther than ever, so it is becoming harder to make the mistake of moral myopia. It simply doesn't add up to the most benefit for the most people to create pariah groups, because all people are capable of benefiting all people, particularly in a highly interconnected age. People who wish to continue to discriminate are looking increasingly Paleolithic. OK, perhaps Bronze Age or even Medieval, but neither of those are respectable stances. And the most benefit for the most people tends to provide the most benefit for me, because I'm not all that special. But of course, it's not just me that matters to me. I care about my family and friends. I care about the works that we create. A game theory of mind morality is my best shot at securing advantages to myself, my family and friends, and the stuff we care about, because the alternatives are largely unavailable to me (I'm not able to be a robber baron) or unappealing to me (I don't want to be shunned as a cheater or predator). But even if I could be a robber baron, I wouldn't want to, because I can see how much harm that does in aggregate. And that aggregate harm detracts from the legacy I'd like to leave, which hurts my ego.

In the end, I think the burden of proof is on the person who claims that there is "something more" to morality. I can't think of any moral quandary that isn't explained reasonably well by game theory of mind. Perhaps that just means that I'm the unimaginative one, but I truly believe that people overcomplicate morality and thereby accord it a mysteriousness it does not deserve. I believe that the examples you state of apparent contradictions between game theory and innate moral feelings would dissolve if you cast your actuarial net a bit wider, looked further down the road, and included a broader array of behaviors as potential benefits. For example, you may not think you'll ever land in jail, and I'm sure you do a reasonably good job of avoiding situations that might get you incarcerated, but remember that innocent people are frequently jailed. Just not breaking the law is not enough to be sure. And remember that most prisoners are released back into society, so ensuring that they are treated well in prison increases the odds that they will behave on the outside. Our prison system sucks at this, of course, but it's the shortsighted people who think that people in jail deserve harsh, even illegal, treatment. They're just not thinking ahead to the day they run across an ex-con in a parking lot and how they were treated in prison may be the difference between a polite greeting and a punch in the eye. You want prisoners treated the way you would like to be treated as a prisoner, because you can imagine yourself in their shoes, even if you think you'll never actually go to jail. If nothing else, this "what-iffing" constitutes good practice at moral reasoning, and that in itself enhances your ability to play the game.

It's hard to think about the net present value of millions of potential future interactions and decide whether the final sum is positive or negative. That's why we have these ingrained guidelines that have proven to work out over our evolutionary history. They are handy shortcuts that have withstood the test of time. They don't always work, but what does?

To sum up, lions, tigers, bears, sharks, and robber barons are pursuing a different survival strategy, and thus are not part of my social contract. Chickens, fish, and Republibaggertarians lack the capacity to pursue the game theory of mind survival strategy (at least at an adequate level to play in the majors--fish protect each other in schools, for example, but that's the t-ball of morality) and thus are not part of my social contract. Note that many Republibaggertarians think they are pursuing the predator strategy, utterly failing to realize that they are, in fact, prey. Sarah Palin is nothing if not a moose in the headlights. A sexy, sexy moose about to total your car. All of the above, OK to eat. Chimps, dogs, dolphins, not OK to eat. My jury is out on some other species like cows and pigs. Might not be OK to eat. If you want to convince me, start there, but you're unlikely to sway me on chickens. There are recorded incidents of chickens surviving for weeks with their heads cut off. And not the head part in a jar. The body part, running around, being fed by hand thru the esophagus, blissfully unaware. Any animal with so little need of a brain is just a sandwich waiting to happen.
Aaron,
The boring and off point comments, like Sonny's - hunting bunnies, yum yum, blood, etc. are just trying to get a rise out of us. It's like little boys putting dead frogs in little girls faces. It's jusy childish mean-spiritedness. They are children, like Sonny, or childish, thoughtless adults. Discussion is for those of us who want to think.
It's not just the meat eating in itself that presents the real ethical problem. It's how the meat is treated before it's killed and how it is killed that create the ethical dilemma (or one of them). It is the avoidable suffering caused to sentient creatures that poses the greatest problem for me. I eat meat but I try to keep it to a minimum and try to buy meat from animals that have not been mistreated or made to suffer unnecessarily. For example, I will only buy totally free range chicken that has never been caged up and has been allowed to roam around doing what chickens like to do until the moment it is quickie killed as painlessly as possible. Nor will buy veal. I find that, for the most part can get the protein I need from eggs dairy and other foods that cannot suffer.
Environmentally speaking the earth would be less stressed if we ate more plant based foods rather than eating other animals after they have converted that plant biomass to meat. It takes a huge amount of plant material to make just one steak for example - most of the energy derived from that plant based food that the animal eats is wasted in maintaining the metabolic process of the cow and very little of it ends up as steak. Add to that the global warming methane produced in the process, the amount of plant food wasted that could have provided grain and other plant based foods to feed humans, the health problems involved with a high animal fat diet and all the suffering of billions of sentient creatures and, to me at least, the ethical problems start to mount up.

Sure we evolved as omnivores. But we evolved lots of behaviors and characteristics that we can and do modify for good reasons. For most of our evolutionary history washing ourselves with soap and water, or cutting our hair were not behaviors we engaged in and they are still , not strictly necessary. But we do them because it makes life better and it does us no harm to do them. The same goes for meat eating. We could get along without it given our modern day knowledge of what is required in our diet. Most of us would probably benefit health wise if we did stop eating it. Our environment and world food producing capacity would certainly benefit. And into the barging our sentient cousins would not have to suffer so much just because we enjoy the taste of their flesh.

I am not a complete vegetarian and would certainly not try to force my ethical beliefs in this regard down other people's throats. So don't panic all you carnivores - no one is trying to take your bone away. But calm rational discussion about matters ethical cannot hurt and is generally the best way to proceed and eventually affect normative behaviour. That's one of the good things about these forums.
robbrownsyd: It's not just the meat eating in itself that presents the real ethical problem. It's how the meat is treated before it's killed and how it is killed that create the ethical dilemma (or one of them).

And has anybody disagreed with that ? No. However, humane treatment and slaughter are not the issue here. At issue is a holy fatwa that all meat is murder; we're all murderers; and if you've followed the thread, we're no better than real rapists and murders anyway; and that suicide bombing is OK providing it's humans and not donkeys involved.

This is the great derangement. I have always consistently stressed that humane farming and slaughter should be the number one issue for any carnivore. I know precisely how my meat is farmed and killed. I urge every carnivore to do the same. But the argument here is not interested in that - it is pure religious babble that meat is evil. Aaron is more interested in preaching than in actual ethical practice. If he were sincere, he would be going after burger chains instead of farting hot air at people who are actual ethical eaters.

Its all about appearance - that's all any minority mono-interest activist ever wants. Actually doing something positive is another thing altogether, but they're not interested in that. Might get their hands dirty, and besides, it doesn't pull as many chicks as playing this theatre sport of posturing, lecturing and morality crusading.
ɥɔןǝɟ: and if you've followed the thread, we're no better than real rapists and murders anyway;

Heh. That's moral relativism in evolution, and we have a glimpse of it just now. How will our great-grandchildren see us ethical meat-eaters? I wouldn't be surprised at all if they give us the same contempt we have for our slave-owning ancestors, for whom slavery was 'natural'.

Although, depending on how the future turns out to be, they might consider it perfectly PC to rely on cannibalism for survival.
Are you implying I have an objection to cannibalism?
I used the general 'we', as in 'we, the people'. Individual opinions like yours or mine are irrelevant to my point. And yes, I believe the general consensus is that cannibalism is not OK at the moment.
ahem. I disagree with it (the first statement you made that is). Killing unnecessarily is, IMO, unethical as well. And killing something else for fun just because it's not human still fits into the term speciesism perfectly.
Heather, nobody here is seriously arguing otherwise. We may, however, disagree about what constitutes "unnecessarily" and "for fun".
UDFG, you've got Aaron all wrong. His beard is about pulling chicks. At least, I think I recall him saying something like that.

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