Sunday, April 28, 2019

Animal Rights and Incredulous Stares


In this post, I would like to examine an article from the animal ethics journal called "Between the Species." Like all articles in this journal, it is freely available on the internet. The article is called "Animal Rights and Incredulous Stares" by Bob Fischer, who is a Philosophy professor at Texas State University. The article can be found here. This is a rather interesting article that approaches the subject of animal rights from a rather unusual position. Rather than approaching the topic from standard vantage points like marginal case argumentation, reduction of suffering considerations, or right-violation arguments, Fischer approaches the subject by comparing Tom Regan's animal rights view with a seemingly unrelated postion, namely the modal realism of David Lewis. Modal realism is a well-known position within the discipline of metaphysics, but it is very widely rejected by contemporary metaphysicians, primarily because the view is said to be so counter-intuitive that it is rational to reject it on that basis alone. Fischer argues that Reagan's view has much in common with Lewis' in some ways, and that in the end it might indeed be rational for some people to reject it (We should note that Fischer himself is a vegan, and towards the end of the article he makes the observation that this conclusion sits rather uneasily with him).

For those who might be unfamiliar with this topic, let me briefly describe  exactly what modal realism is. Say that we have some sentence such as "The grass in my yard is green." What exactly makes this sentence true? If we take what might be called the 'commonsense' view of truth (NOTE: The question of the nature of truth is a dense philosophical thicket that we need not venture into at the moment, the common view will do for this example), this sentence is made true by the grass in my yard having the property of greenness. So far so good. But suppose we have the following sentence: Unicorns could possibly have existed. What makes this new sentence true? It does not seem that we can give the same sort of answer to this question as we did to the previous question. For one thing, unicorns do not exist. In addition, what would a property such as "could possibly have existed" even be like; and how could we determine whether unicorns have this property? There are many similar statements we could come up with that run into these same problems, they are known as 'modal statements.' A modal statement is any statement that contains the words 'possibly' or 'necessarily' (or any synonym of these words).

This is where Lewis' modal realism comes in. It is designed to provide an account of how such modal statements are true. The answer that Lewis gives to this question is very simple: namely, modal statements are true in just the same way that ordinary statements are true. In other words, the statement 'Unicorns could have existed' is true because, in some concrete possible world, unicorns do in fact exist.

Now, while this view might strike you as incredibly outlandish and counterintuitive (and we will get to this shortly), it actually has a certain radical simplicity to it. For note that Lewis is only supposing the existence of concrete objects and sets of these. And though I have only mentioned how modal realism relates to modal statements, the view has also been used to provide an analysis of a wide range of topics in philosophy. So it is clear that the view at least appears to score very highly on such theoretical virtues as simplicity, scope of application, and explanatory power.

But as I said earlier, modal realism is almost universally rejected by contemporary philosophers. Strangely enough (and Fischer points this out as well), many of these same philosophers agree that modal realism has all of the theoretical virtues that I just pointed out. But they reject the view because, as they see it, is clashes so much with our commonsense intuitions that for that reason alone it is rational for us to reject it. In other words, they give what is called an 'incredulous stare' to Lewis.

Instead of supporting modal realism, these philosophers formulate different metaphysical theories of modality that Lewis refers to as 'ersaztism.' These other theories posit a number of other theoretical entities that play the part of truthmakers for modal statements, like sets, propositions, states of affairs, etc. These theories do not score as highly on the theoretical virtue test as Lewis'. But, so these other philosophers say, they match much better with our commonsense intuitions, and this is a good enough reason to prefer them over Lewis's.

This is where Tom Regan's animal rights view comes in. As Fischer sees it, Reagan's position on this matter is very much like Lewis'. Reagan's ethical theory is in the first case quite simple; for it gives only a single very clear threshold for moral status: namely, being a subject-of-a-life. Using this criterion as a baseline, Reagan formulates an incredibly wide-sweeping ethical theory with a high degree of explanatory power.

But, so says Fischer, the consequences of Reagan's view are radical and very much opposed to our commonsense intuition. When a carnist is told that he is morally obligated to change his whole lifestyle by going vegan, we might very easily see how he would respond to this by giving the same sort of incredulous stare.

And just like the ersatzists, carnist philosophers have also formulated theories intended to counteract the conclusion of Reagan's view and to uphold the commonsense speciesist view. There are a whole host of alternative theories (and Fischer mentions some of them in his article), but the main point to note is that, just like in the metaphysics of modality, they all lack the theoretical virtues of Reagan's view. As Fischer notes "They aren't as elegant: they require more primitives, they involve accepting more arbitrariness, and they are imprecise where a commitment to animal rights isn't ... Still, they are all a great deal closer to common sense than the alternative. And for many people, that is enough."

The question that Fischer wants to ask with regard to all of this is: is it rational for these carnists philosophers to reject Reagan's conclusions on this basis alone? As far as Fischer is concerned, the answer to that question depends upon the answer to a prior question; namely, is the belief upheld by the commonsense speciesist attitude a moorean Fact? Allow me to explain what this means.

The term 'moorean fact' is a piece of philosophical jargon that refers to " that are especially secure within common sense." In fact, these claims are said to be so secure that they are not "...revisable... by philosophical argument." Now from Fischer's point of view, if the speciesist belief is a Moorean fact, then the Carnist is justified in rejecting Reagan's animal rights viewpoint, since "Insofar as it's rational to take certain moral claims to be Moorean, it's rational to reject philosophical theses that would lead you to deny them."

But what exactly are the conditions that a belief must meet in order to qualify as a Moorean fact? There are 5 such conditions, they are as follows (this list is adapted from an essay by McPherson that Fischer quotes in his paper):

1. A high degree of confidence

2. A large degree of philosophically naive proponents

3. A large degree of change to our beliefs required by dropping the belief.

4. A low degree of fit of a conflicting belief with our epistemic paradigm.

5. A high vulnerability of the conflicting belief to debunking explanations.

Now the main point driving the article is that Fischer believes that for some people the belief that humans are superior to animals, and thus that it is morally justified for humans to exploit animals, is indeed a Moorean fact, and it is rational for some carnists to reject any counterarguments to their position.

Now I should just say up front that I find Fischer's argument here to be completely wrong and totally misguided, and I think his mode of reasoning represents a kind of pathologically mistaken methodology that the Animal Rights movement would do well to understand and critique at every possible opportunity.

In essence, the mode of reasoning that Fischer uses in his article is a common one within contemporary Analytic Philosophy. The idea behind it is, and here we use Fischer's own words, "Philosophy answers to common sense ..." Put more explicitly, on this view when we Philosophize we must take the beliefs and claims of common sense seriously and we must try our best to account for them in our Philosophical theories (or at least to not run too far afoul of them). Now, of course, this does not mean that we cannot revise common sense under due pressure from Philosophical argumentation, but this option is not even allowed when we find ourselves faced with a Moorean fact. All Moorean facts must be included within an adequate Philosophical theory on this view, arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Now I think this whole way of thinking is mistaken from the very beginning, and not only the stuff about Moorean facts. As I see things, Philosophy answers to nothing but the Truth. Commonsense thinking is not a theory in any appreciable sense of the term, and it is severely lacking in logical adequacy, often mistaken in its conclusions, and in many cases it is cruel.

Let me give an analogy to demonstrate the sort of absurdities that this way of thinking leads to. Imagine that we have a society called Asphyxiania. It is an almost universally held belief in Asphyxiania that it is rational, morally acceptable, and even morally required of people to strangle their firstborn infants to within an inch of their lives so as to induce severe lifelong brain damage. When asked why such a thing could be morally required, a citizen of Asphyxiania will say that firstborn children are obviously more prone to crime and heathenry, and thus it is necessary to permanently incapacitate them in order to create a just and orderly society.

Indeed, we could even imagine that the inhabitants of Asphyxiania have this belief as a central component of a tightly controlled epistemic paradigm, such that to drop the belief would require a massive structural change in the paradigm. Now imagine that, within Asphyxiania, there is a small group of people known as Firstborn Rights Activists (FRA). The FRAs argue that it is morally wrong for the people of Asphyxiania to engage in this practice of strangling their firstborn children, and they affirm that these people must change their ways by giving up this practice.

We can imagine the incredulous stares that the inhabitants of Asphyxiania would give in response to such a proposal. No doubt they would say something to the effect of "That is utterly preposterous. The moral goodness of strangling firstborn children is an immediately self-evident proposition that virtually everyone in our society believes. In fact, it is one of the foundations of our society. What you are proposing does not fit within our current epistemic paradigm, and to try to accompany your practice into our society would require of us that we drop the paradigm altogether. Indeed, our belief qualifies as a Moorean fact, and thus we are justified in holding on to it, your Philosophical arguments to the contrary notwithstanding."

How should we evaluate the reasoning here? If Fischer (and those who agree with him) were at all consistent, they would no doubt be forced to say that it is rational for the inhabitants of Asphyxiania to continue this heinous practice of theirs, insofar as it is a Moorean fact. This is so because the analogy that I have just brought forth is structurally identical to the case of the widespread belief in speciesism.

However, I do not accept it, and I would hope that Fischer and those who think as he does would agree with me in this. The main reason is that I do not think that Philosophers should be beholden to any alleged 'Moorean Facts.' If a belief or a practice is wrong, then no matter how widely accepted it is, and no matter how central a role it plays within the current epistemic paradigm, the belief must be dropped. If this also requires dropping the epistemic paradigm that the belief upholds, then so be it.

I hope that the connection between the preceding observations and animal activism is clear. Animal activists should not feel the need to accommodate commonsense intuitions or so-called 'Moorean Facts' into their activist work. If a Carnist mentions the fact that speciesism is self-evidently true, or if they say that it plays such a central role within Western Civilization that dropping it would entail dropping Western Civilization itself, then you would be well advised to formulate an analogy like the one I did. This will help to demonstrate the absurd conclusions that that form of thinking leads to, and will hopefully help to further the cause of Total Animal Liberation


  1. This post is very clearly written. :)

    I don't know much about Moorean Facts, but a steelmanned version of the idea could be that common sense and fit with existing theory are strong heuristic arguments against weird beliefs (although I think that any default assumption can always be overcome with enough contrary argument).

    Regarding Asphyxiania, a critic could say that you can always argue against a heuristic by pointing to some cases where it's wrong. For example, the heuristic that "rocks usually sink in water" is probably wrong for some particular low-density rocks, but most of the time the heuristic is correct. You have to consider the success of the heuristic across the full distribution of cases where it's applied.

    On the other hand, as you say, common sense *is* often wrong about factual matters, so maybe the track record of common sense was never that great to begin with. But maybe a Moorean Fact advocate could note that philosophical arguments also have a fairly poor track record (e.g., Descartes's proof of the existence of God), so maybe the probability that common sense is right exceeds the probability that a weird argument is right.

    Anyway, my own view is that moral truth doesn't exist, so trying to use common sense as a heuristic to discern truth isn't really applicable (although we might choose to use common sense as one guide for morality anyway, if we want to do so).

    1. Well, I certainly didn't expect to see a reply from you so soon after starting up my website. Thanks for writing in. Now on to the content of your reply:

      "...a steelmanned version of the idea could be that common sense and fit with existing theory are strong heuristic arguments against weird beliefs "

      That is actually a more sensible route to go, but as you could probably glean from my post, the proponents of Moorean Facts want to claim that such facts are known with absolute certainty. If you are interested in finding out where this idea all started, I would suggest you take a look at G.E. Moore's essay title 'A Defense of Common Sense' (which is also freely available on the internet).

      But if we are strictly talking probabilities, I do think it would certainly not be irrational to make use of your steelmanned version of Moorean Facts. But I think the situation in Asphyxiania would still run into the rights-violation problem. The way I see it, even if the belief about firstborn criminality was a useful heuristic, it would still be unjust to to take the course of action described. But of course, I mainly feel that way because of my strong Deontological leanings.

      "maybe a Moorean Fact advocate could note that philosophical arguments also have a fairly poor track record (e.g., Descartes's proof of the existence of God), so maybe the probability that common sense is right exceeds the probability that a weird argument is right."

      I find this sort of response to be the best case one might make for appealing to commonsense beliefs in our philosophical theorizing. But I do not find myself in agreement with it, primarily because of the unsystematic and generally haphazard manner in which commonsense beliefs are formed. Philosophy, at least when it is ideally practiced, does have a general methodology that it tries to follow in discerning the truth, and I think it is more rational to put one's stock in philosophical methodology than in the whims of commonsense belief formation.

    2. :)

      > The way I see it, even if the belief about firstborn criminality was a useful heuristic, it would still be unjust

      That makes sense. What I had in mind was this heuristic as used by members of Asphyxiania:

      Common-sense morality is usually right.
      Asphyxiania's practice seems common-sense moral.
      So Asphyxiania's practice is probably morally right.

      This is similar to

      Rocks usually sink in water.
      This object is a rock.
      So this object probably sinks in water.

    3. I see. Well, that would certainly have to be the king of route an inhabitant of Asphyxiania would have to take. But of course, the first premise is where all the trouble leads.

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