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Much of the debate arising out of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation focuses on the first chapter in which he articulates the idea of speciesism. Singer’s now famous argument runs roughly as follows. Everyone’s interests ought to be given equal consideration including those of nonhuman animals. Animals capable of suffering are worthy of moral consideration because the possession of such a capacity, understood here as sentience, is the necessary and sufficient condition for the having of interests. Those prejudiced toward the interests of members of their own species and against those members of other species are guilty of ‘speciesism’. Importantly he claims that most human beings are speciesist, that we take an active part, or acquiesce in practices that ‘require the sacrifice of the most important interests of members of other species in order to promote the most trivial interests of our own’ (Singer, 1976, p. 10). Subsequent chapters of Animal Liberation, he says, represent examples of speciesism in practice.
In contrast to Singer’s view, I suggest that ‘Tools for Research’, his second chapter, which attends to the practice of nonhuman animal experimentation, need not be understood in terms of, or simply as an example of speciesism. There is an alternative way of understanding its moral persuasiveness that entails resituating ‘Tools for Research’ within the larger historical context of activist literature. To this end I draw attention to the similarities in strategies employed by Peter Singer and the 19th century feminist and animal activist Frances Power Cobbe, as well as the similarities in the criticisms of these strategies made by particular physiologists, both past and present, and provide analysis of this debate.
Part I: The Activists, their Strategies, & their Critics
In the late 1800s Frances Power Cobbe both founded an anti-vivisection organisation called the Victoria Street Society, and produced much polemical literature condemning the scientific practice. Her influential pamphlet ‘Light In Dark Places’ (1883) offered readers an insight into the routine beliefs and practices of physiologists at that time in Britain and Europe. It contains various descriptions and illustrations of the equipment used, including tools and tables and specialised ‘ovens’, as well as detailed accounts of various experiments, all of which were taken from the practitioner’s own publications or ‘letter-press descriptions’, and in most cases reprinted in their own words (Cobbe, 2004 (1883), p. 293). Apart from one or two, all the experiments included in the pamphlet, she says, constituted routine procedures, so much so that they represented the expected level of competency for any physiologist worthy of the title at the time (Cobbe, 2004 (1883), p. 294).
Perhaps the most illuminating extract cited by Cobbe is that of French physiologist Elie de Cyon (1876). Here he likened the practice of vivisection to any other art form, likened the vivisector to any other artist, to people with particularly imaginative sensibilities, which when placed side by side with the illustrations and descriptions of the suffering endured by the animals and taken outside of its usual readership – that is, by fellow vivisectors or students in the field – might serve to persuade otherwise, hence its inclusion in ‘Light in Dark Places’.
The ‘true vivisector’, according to Elie de Cyon:
“must approach a difficult vivisection with the same joyful excitement, and the same delight, wherewith a surgeon undertakes a difficult operation, from which he expects extraordinary consequences. He who shrinks from cutting into a living animal, he who approaches a vivisection as a disagreeable necessity, may very likely be able to repeat one or two vivisections, but will never become an artist in vivisection…The pleasure of triumphing over difficulties held hitherto insuperable is always one of the highest delights of the vivisector. And the sensation of the physiologist, when from a gruesome wound, full of blood and mangled tissue, he draws forth some delicate nerve-branch, and calls back to life a function which was already extinguished–this sensation has much in common with that which inspires sculptor, when shapes forth fair living forms from a shapeless mass of marble.” (Cobbe, 2004 (1883), pp. 305-7, my emphasis)
Animals in this context, like the canvas of the painter or the wood of the carpenter, are the materials by which the vivisector creates. Put alongside the illustrations of tools and tables, they are much like the tools themselves, for nowhere does de Cyon mention the animal to which he is referring – it could be any animal, anywhere, anytime. Furthermore, we get a sense that this was what apprentices in the field at that time should have been aiming to achieve, for this was how the superior vivisector worked – and it is this ‘how to go on’, ‘how to do it’ that readers became privy to as outsiders of the discipline.
There is little theoretical discussion or philosophical argument contained in Cobbe’s pamphlet. Something about the descriptions and illustrations, she believed, would stand on their own as testament to the necessary cessation of vivisection. Something about readers attending to the practice performed by named physiologists Cobbe considered a valuable strategy in making vivisection a matter of common concern. Peter Singer adopted a similar strategy in ‘Tools for Research’.
Scattered throughout Singer’s chapter on animal experimentation, ‘Tools for Research’, are summaries of actual experiments conducted on animals by real scientists whom Singer indeed names. And like Cobbe, in summarising the various experiments Singer often cites the practitioner’s own scientific account of what went on. I will outline some of these examples and Singer’s associated commentary but certainly not all for his citations are extensive and for the purpose of identifying his strategy citing all of them is unnecessary.
Part way into the chapter of the first edition Singer describes a series of experiments conducted by Dr Harry Harlow and others studying social isolation in particularly infant monkeys, presumably, although it is not stated by Singer, to act as models for understanding and human psychopathology of the same order. In the first edition of Animal Liberation, Singer described a series of experiments conducted by Dr Harry Harlow concerning social isolation in particularly infant monkeys, presumably, although it is not stated by Singer, to act as models for understanding human psychopathology of the same order. Citing from the researchers’ own publications, Singer wrote:
“For the past ten years we have studied the effects of partial social isolation by raising monkeys from birth onwards in bare wire cages…These monkeys suffer total maternal deprivation…More recently we have initiated a series of studies on the effects of total social isolation by rearing monkeys from a few hours after birth until 3, 6 or 12 months of age in [a] stainless steel chamber. During the prescribed sentence in this apparatus the monkey has no contact with any animal, human or sub-human” (1976, p. 43).
In a series of subsequent experiments, Singer tells us, the researchers designed surrogate ‘monster mothers’ (their phrase) in order to induce depression in baby monkeys. The researchers wrote that:
“The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animals skin practically off its body. What did the baby monkey do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs. We did not achieve any psychopathology.” (Singer, 1976, p. 44)
Regarding the results, Singer notes that the researchers themselves remarked that is was not surprising to them that the babies kept returning to the monster mother, since ‘the only recourse of an injured child is to cling to its mother’ (Singer, 1976, p. 44). In terms of Singer’s own commentary, he suggests that despite the great pain caused the many animals he had described no momentous or vital new knowledge had been generated. Animals have become, he says:
“for the psychologist and for other researchers, mere tools. A laboratory may consider the cost of these “tools”, but a certain callousness toward them becomes apparent, not only in the experiments performed but also in the wording of the reports” (1976, p. 46).
In the second edition of Animal Liberation Singer describes a particular case in which activists belonging to the Animal Liberation Front infiltrate the lab of Dr. Thomas Gennarelli at the University of Pennsylvania and steal a number of video recordings showing various experiments conducted on baboons. Singer tells us that the aim of the experiments was to inflict head injuries on otherwise healthy baboons in order to study the nature of the damage to their brains. The apes were supposed to be anaesthetised at the time but he writes that many could be viewed struggling against their straps before the head injuries were inflicted. All of the researchers involved in the study including Gennarelli himself could be seen and heard laughing and mocking the animals during the experiments. Singer writes that after the public airing of the tapes and much lobbying by various people, funding for the research was withdrawn, although no-one was formally charged with cruelty to animals (Singer, 1995, p. 81).
Part of Singer’s rationale for including reports of actual experiments, he says, is to ‘illustrate not sadism on the part of the individual experimenters [named] but the institutionalised mentality of speciesism that makes it possible for these experimenters to do these things without serious consideration of the interests of the animals they are using’ (1976, p. 36). Singer would likely explain the purpose of Cobbe’s pamphlet in a similar way. The similar strategy adopted by both of reporting experiments outside their usual publication setting provides a valuable insight into the scientific communities’ routine beliefs and practices concerning the treatment of animals. Certainly, Cobbe and Singer adopt this strategy in order to problematize that which is taken for granted and regarded as morally unproblematic by members of the scientific social world experimenting on animals. Interestingly, the title of each work might equally apply to the other, for Cobbe implicitly suggests that animals are analogous to a vivisector’s tools, and Singer aims to expose the scientific social world of the experimenter and their collective ways concerning the treatment of animals which he regards, in many cases, to be callous and cruel.
Writing in 1883, Elie de Cyon criticised anti-vivisectionists and the strategies they employed to influence the general public. Over a century later, physiologists Sharon Russell and Charles Nicoll, advance similar criticisms against Peter Singer’s work. The criticisms amounted to: the misrepresentation of scientific research through propagandist means; disregard for the rationale(s) behind each experiment; and against claims of callousness on the part of the researchers, the counterclaim of sentimentalism and irrationality on the part of the activists.
de Cyon referred to the activists as ‘unreasonable adversaries’, ‘fools’, ‘outsiders’, ‘hysterical sentimentalists’ and ‘old-maids’ and he admonished his colleagues for engaging with the activists, emphasising that this was their crucial mistake. The scientists he said had not shown ‘an excessive condescension’ which they should have, for if the public have been misled,
“the fault must rest first of all with the physiologists themselves, who, in deigning to enter the arena at all with such adversaries, gave them unmerited credit with the crowd.” (de Cyon, 2004 (1883), p. 225)
The judgments of outsiders, he said, had ‘no value at all in matters of science’ (de Cyon, 2004 (1883), p. 225).
de Cyon took particular issue with those whom he saw as having ‘distorted’ his description of the ‘true vivisector’. He rejected the suggestion that the pleasure that came to a vivisector as he had described it could be interpreted as pleasure derived from the suffering of the animal, and to conclude from this that the ‘practice of vivisection develops cruelty’ in the vivisector. Rather, in reading the passage within the context in which it was intended, readers would see that he had set forth ‘the rules to be followed for sparing pain to the animals during vivisection’, one rule of which was to always use anaesthetics.
Against accusations that vivisectors are cruel and callous people, de Cyon offered himself as an example: that as a passionate hunter and rider, he was a man with a strong attachment to horses and dogs, and so could not be accused of a cruel disposition. Neither cruelty nor compassion motivated a physiologist’s decision to perform vivisections, he said (de Cyon, 2004 (1883), p. 231).
Russell and Nicoll share de Cyon’s views but go one step further (1996, p. 110), accusing Singer of misrepresenting the truth about animal research. According to them ‘objective but scientifically naïve readers’ of his chapter would probably come away thinking that ‘most or all of animal research must be cruel, painful, [and] useless’. In their view, the chapter is
“cleverly constructed to appeal to a target audience of impressionable animal lovers or the already true believers in the cult of animalism–giving them many examples of luridly portrayed research in the same tones one might use to describe an ogre under the stairs in a story designed to frighten children” (Russell and Nicoll, 1996, p. 110).
Beyond the criticisms they make of the specific examples of experiments given, they claim that it is a chapter rife with anti-science, anti-intellectual, and anti-American sentiment. A scientist’s need to acquire knowledge, they say (1996, p. 136), ‘must not be encumbered by silly philosophies that are based on emotionalism and sentimentality (such as Singer’s), rather than on rationality and objectivity’.
Singer offers a rebuttal to Russell and Nicoll’s criticisms of which I will say little other than that he rejects claims that he does not offer readers the rationales for the experiments and that his work does not employ emotional language, citing several reviewers who agree. Regarding the language, he says, it is almost impossible not to arouse emotional responses when reporting on what happens to animals in experiments, that is why the language he chose to use was the language of the experimenters themselves precisely in order to avoid accusations of emotional overlay.
Part II: Critical Reflections
The Gennarelli experiments cited above are a useful place to begin my analysis because they draw out some of the underlying assumptions made by members on both sides of the debate and expose some of the problems with Singer’s arguments.
Russell and Nicoll ( 1996, pp. 130-131) take particular issue with Singer’s claims that the baboons were conscious during the experiments and therefore suffered. According to them, no evidence exists to indicate that any of the animals suffered or were frightened when the experimenters permitted ‘themselves some unfortunate “gallows” humor’ (that is, laughing and mocking the animals during the experiments). The animals, they say, were ‘in fact heavily sedated and probably insensible’. The real issue they argue is that important research was halted that was very important to helping save human lives.
If we come down on the side of Singer, that is, that the baboons were indeed conscious during the experiments and therefore suffered then there are grounds for claiming that the experimenters involved were guilty of wrongdoing. The researchers were guilty of speciesism because they did not give due consideration to the suffering of the animals. If we come down on the side of Russell and Nicoll however, that is, that the animals were indeed rendered unconscious, then there is nothing morally problematic about this case according to Singer’s arguments. Their laughing and mocking of the baboons holds no weight because the animals did not suffer from the teasing of the experimenters; they were not aware of it. Without the issue of suffering involved it would seem that the critics could be right to insist that our responses are simply the responses of sentimentalists and that our judgements therefore have no bearing on this case.
But to people who are not sadists (adopting Singer’s turn of phrase) there is very clearly something morally problematic about an experiment in which researchers laugh and mock the animals that they are in the process of deforming. The researchers may not be guilty of speciesism but their behaviour represents a degree of callousness not captured by Singer’s arguments that is nevertheless important to consider. This is something that Singer himself recognises in ‘Tools for Research’ but loses sight of when he links it to the ‘institutionalised mentality of speciesism’ (Singer, 1995, p. 71).
One way of responding might be something like this. Given, as Russell and Nicoll claim, the vital nature of the research where the wellbeing of human lives is at stake, why were the researchers laughing and joking and mocking the animals? How is this appropriate behaviour for people involved in, as Russell and Nicoll say, the very serious business of saving human lives? On this score, their behaviour was not simply ‘unfortunate’ it was unacceptable, appalling and shameful. It showed an attitude wholly inappropriate to the purpose of the research, which, ironically, is precisely what they accuse Singer of: of not taking human lives seriously enough.
The same argument might be made in relation to Francis Power Cobbe’s work. Like Singer, she took sentience as the most important moral marker. In an article published in 1863, Cobbe wrote that an animal’s capacity to suffer is cause sufficient why we should refrain from inflicting pain. We have a duty, she said, to avoid inflicting pain and to bestowing pleasure on creatures with the capacity to feel both. This is the bottom line principle to which we must subscribe; we need not get below it (Cobbe, 2004 (1863), p. 14). What is interesting here is that Cobbe’s argument does not really explain why de Cyon’s description of the vivisector is morally problematic if we take it that the animal(s) he is referring to in his description are rendered insensible and so therefore do not suffer. Cobbe is forced into the position of problematising the use of anaesthesia, which is precisely what she does, but this sort of discussion tends more towards the technical/medical issues involved than the moral ones. Rather, what is at issue here, as it was in the Gennarelli case, is the exposure of a kind of moral detachment on the part of the experimenter that public readers are reacting to.
The notion of sensitised people is a useful place from which to begin teasing out some of the issues brought to light by the above discussion. Researchers working in those scientific fields which take experimenting on animals as a central practice become sensitised to it. As we have seen in the discussion so far, and as Singer himself has pointed out, once researchers reach this point in their profession the work they produce is recognised and treated as credible by their fellow members in their respective disciplines: the practice of experimentation on animals is central to what these researchers do, they have learned how to approach the research situation. One of the interesting claims that could be made here is that the demand for objectivity essential to the development of science promotes moral detachment in scientists and it is perhaps this moral detachment that we are seeing in the descriptions and the researchers involved cited above. The question is how to develop this line of thought without falling into the same trap Singer and Cobbe fall into in making sentience (or some other capacity) the marker of moral significance.
The claim of callousness on the part of the experimenter offers a way in which to examine the notion of moral detachment. Cora Diamond associates this moral detachment on the part of the experimenter with a ‘compartmentalisation of mind’ where in which the experimenters, having become inured to the practice, can simply get on with the job (Diamond, 1995, p. 355). There is much more to her claim, and I will return to this shortly. At this point I want to say why I believe Singer and Cobbe’s works are persuasive, which has little to do with their moral arguments and much to do with their displacement of the experiments from the context in which they are traditionally embedded. In drawing this claim out I will return to the idea of ‘compartmentalisation of mind’ on the part of the researcher.
What we as general readers bring to bear on the experiments is an ordinary sensibility towards animals that itself has been collectively produced, which is facilitated by the activists’ relocating the experiments outside their conventional publication space and conventional readership and so disrupts the expectations of how the experiments should be read. Whether experiments using animals yields morally and intellectually responsible knowledge, the practitioners would have us believe, depends in large part on the surety of the scientific community in which the experiments are conducted and not outside it: how the community sees the experiments determines their acceptability and their worth. But the important point here is that the way in which the community sees the experiments and offers its assurance has itself been produced: scientists and researchers have been taught how to attend to the descriptions as part of their professional training, whereas the public have not been conditioned in the same way. And so when de Cyon, Russell and Nicoll talk of outsiders or naïve readers, they are talking of people who are strangers to a scientific practice and the way that these practices are to be seen that they, as trained practitioners, are not. The further inference that they make is that anyone not trained in the ways of that social setting, which includes how one attends to the descriptions, has little to say that is of value to those who have the collective authority to pass judgment. It is of little surprise then that those on the ‘inside’ equate the concept of naivety to those on the ‘outside’. What is interesting is that they further equate this naivety with an excessive and seemingly unwarranted expression of emotion. How then might we deal with these claims and counter-claims of sentimentalism and callousness from those on both sides of the debate?
Diamond characterises the two sides of the animal experimentation debate in terms of their differing views with regard to the use of the animals. View One (V1) says that ‘within limits, experimental animals may be regarded as delicate instruments, or as analogous to them, and are to be used efficiently and cared for properly, but no more than that is demanded.’ View Two (V2) on the other hand says that ‘within limits, animals may be regarded as sources of moral claims. These claims arise from their capacity for an independent life, or perhaps from their sentience, but in either case the moral position of animals is seen as having analogies with that of human beings’ (Diamond, 1995, p. 339). From the summary already provided, Singer’s work very clearly fits with V2, likewise Cobbe’s, for she too is concerned with moral claims that arise out of sentience.
de Cyon, Russell and Nicoll accept V1 concerning animal experimentation, which is borne out in their criticisms of Cobbe and Singer respectively. We saw earlier that de Cyon cited ‘rules to be followed for sparing pain to the animal during vivisection’ (Cobbe 2004 (1883), p. 230) and so we can take pain relief to represent de Cyon’s minimal standard that experimenting on animals need meet in order to be justifiable. Russell and Nicoll are less explicit in what they regard as the minimal standards, but the issue of pain,..
In this essay I will answer the question of whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice. I will begin by clarifying the definitions of ‘moral humanism’ and ‘speciesism’ I will be using in this essay and will offer a brief justification to why I think these definitions are the most appropriate. Once the definitions are established, I will summarise the argument for moral humanism made by Bernard Williams and will analyse arguments made against Williams from Peter Singer and Julian Savulescu. After considering these objections, I will summarise an argument put forward by Shelly Kagan that supports that the moral thought of human beings comes before non-human animals, but from a position from modal personism instead of moral humanism. Once summarised, I will respond to some objections by Singer against Kagan, then will consider whether modal personism does any better than moral humanism. From this point, I will draw upon possible approaches to animal ethics that are consistent with moral humanism, specifically becoming a vegetarian. This essay will then conclude whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice.
Before attempting to answer the question whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice, I will first establish what moral humanism and speciesism entails by their definitions. In much of the literature on this subject, speciesism has been used in a variety of ways with different implications, so it is important to get this concept clear first. The definition of speciesism I will use is one provided by O. Horta (2010, p 243), which is: “the unjustified disadvantageous consideration or treatment of those who are not classified as belonging to a certain species.” As can be seen in this definition of speciesism, if this essay concludes that moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice, it is also making the claim that the speciesism is unjustified. Thus, I will not be making any attempt to defend speciesism, as to do so would be incoherent. Furthermore, when I appeal to literature that does claim to be defending speciesism, I believe that they are claiming that their beliefs are not speciesist at all.
To some this may seem question begging, or overly presumptuous, to make speciesism an unjustified belief by its own definition. However, I argue that this is the assumption that most would hold when using the term. For instance, T. Patrone (2013, p 27) mentions that Peter Singer, who popularised the term, uses it for the very purpose of demonstrating the similarity with racism and sexism. When we say that someone is being racist or sexist, we are not saying ‘you are being racist, we will hear your argument to see if it is justified’, we are saying it is unjustified, and if we were to hear an argument that would justify their behaviour, we would no longer claim they are being racist. So, if speciesism is meant to be used in this manner, it ought to have the same implications. If some readers of this essay remain unconvinced, they can interpret some of the arguments that moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice as a defence of speciesism and should still be able to follow the arguments with relative ease.
Now to consider moral humanism. The understanding of moral humanism I will appeal to in this essay comes from Bernard Williams. Williams (2009, p 80-82) understands moral humanism to be that our moral and ethical considerations begins with human beings, and is the basis of our ethical and moral life. However, Williams (2009, p 81-2) points out this is not to say that moral humanism entails that human beings are absolutely important, and that any other non-human animals are not worthy of any ethical and moral consideration. It is merely that our ethical and moral considerations gets its grounding from the perspective of human beings. And this will be the understanding of moral humanism I will use in this essay. So, from this point I will analyse the argument that moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice made by Williams.
Williams (2009, p 82-3) observes the argument that moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice which appeals to the historical racist and sexist claims that we ought to value men better because they are men, and white people because they are white, and that appealing to the fact that we are human beings is no different. He responds by making the point that racist and sexist beliefs are typically defended with deeper reasons which are based on false premises or are invalid, such as ‘whites are more intelligent than blacks’ or ‘men are more rational, and ‘women are more emotional’. And in the cases where these beliefs were held without reasons, time came when the oppressed demanded from those who held such views to provide reasons. And this is what is different between moral humanism and the other ‘isms’. We favour human beings. Full stop. Williams (2009, pp 84, 91) also mentions that since non-human animals will never engage in ethical discussion like other humans can and do, we will always be acting on their behalf and therefore can only ever consider how they should be treated. If a white man has an ethical outlook towards a black woman not as a human being, but how she should be ‘treated’ is indeed prejudiced. However, concerning non-human animals there can be no other way to understand the situation ethically and morally.
Williams (2009, p 86) responds to an approach made by Peter Singer and other utilitarians in place of moral humanism, which is the imagining of an impartial observer. The impartial observer, according to Williams (2009, p 87-88), is the idea of an individual that takes on all the suffering in the world as an outside observer, and we use our imagination of what this would be like to guide our actions. This, Williams says, is how critics of moral humanism demonstrate that it really is nothing more than a speciesist prejudice, since the impartial observer would take on all suffering equally. Williams (2009, p 89) however makes two challenges against such use. First, it is unrealistically demanding to the point of insanity. He asks us to imagine our reaction to trying to stop all the needless suffering animals inflict on one another in the wild. Second, to take on all the suffering in the world would lead us to destroy the planet so that the suffering we would experience as an impartial observer would be unbearable.
There is also another objection raised by Williams (1985, p 92-3) that he raised against the impartial observer in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, where he points out that taking on all suffering equally results in a contradiction. This contradiction is that different creatures will have competing desires and competing sufferings when these desires are frustrated. Try to imagine the suffering of a hungry wolf whilst simultaneously imagining the suffering of the rabbit fleeing the wolf. You would want to simultaneously desire the rabbit to succeed and not succeed in fleeing the wolf, which is incoherent.
Williams (2009, p 85) also addresses the argument that Singer makes that some favour of human beings over non-human animals, such as the degree of our moral outrage when we see a human killed as opposed to animal, can be justified through understanding human beings as persons. He says that typically the main attributes of being a person, which are morally relevant, seem to be our self-consciousness, ability to plan for the future, have desires beyond the hedonistic ones, and so on. One major problem Williams (2009, p 86) raises with looking at the properties of personhood as opposed to the fact we are human beings as the starting point for giving them favour in our ethical thought, is the status we would have to give mentally disabled infants and the elderly with severe dementia. By these criteria of personhood, we would no longer see them as persons, and would hold them with at best the same moral status as other non-human animals, and at worst below the moral status as other non-human animals.
Williams (2009, p 93-6) then puts forward a thought experiment of an arrival of aliens that are highly intelligent and moral. Williams asks us whether we would fight back against the aliens or collaborate with them? It is here where Williams (2009, p 95-6) says:
Even if they did think it, I am not saying that the universal moralists, the potential collaborators, would have to agree with them. But they might agree with them, and if they were reluctant to do so, I do not see how they could be sure that they were not the victims of what in their terms could would be just another self-serving prejudice. This, it seems to me, is a place at which the project of trying to transcend altogether the ways in which human beings understand themselves and make sense of their practices could end up. And at this point there seems to be only one question left to ask: Which side are you on?
Singer has provided some responses to this argument put forward by Williams. First, Singer (2009, p 97-8) observes that Williams does not believe that there is a cosmic point of view of the universe that judges what we do, something Singer agrees with. However, Singer disagrees with Williams that this means that to think of ourselves as holding significance in the universe is merely a muddle. Singer’s reply to this is that to believe that a world that once existed held more happiness and less suffering was better than one that held less happiness and more suffering is no muddle. This is true, but this is the point that Williams appears to be making in his rejection of the cosmic point of view. There is only one point of view to appeal to, and that is our point of view. It is part of the motivational set of human beings to typically wish to reduce suffering and promote happiness. So, this does not appear to be any challenge to moral humanism.
Second, Singer (2009, p 98-9) claims that Williams’ conclusion that an impartial observer would destroy the world would only be the case if one were a negative utilitarian, one who is only concerned with minimising suffering. Singer says that he focusses on minimising needless suffering because it promotes more potential happiness, so if we were to consider suffering and happiness on balance, one would be an extreme pessimist to conclude that the world should be destroyed. However, even considering pleasure and pain on balance, it could very well be the case that we would still rather to cease to exist. If we are, as the impartial observer demands, to take on all suffering, this would include every animal in the wild that experiences a struggle for survival for their whole lives. Therefore, it is conceivable that the ideal observer would experience such a net negative of happiness in total, that they would wish to cease this experience at once. And there would be nothing pessimistic about this view.
Third, Singer (2009, p 100) agrees that the parallels between speciesism and sexism and/or racism are inexact. However, he claims these differences to do not challenge his view of speciesism, which he describes as “discrimination on the basis of species”, and is not based on attributes humans possess, such as superior mental powers, which is what he claims Williams is appealing to in his defence of moral humanism. Singer 2009, p100) then gives the following example:
Consider the fact that we are prepared to subject chimpanzees, monkeys, pigs and dogs to painful and lethal experiments, but we regard it as a violation of human rights to do this to humans who, perhaps because of a genetic abnormality, or an accident at birth, never have had, nor will have, intellectual abilities comparable to these animals. Does this not show a prejudice in favor of humans that has nothing to do with mental abilities or any of the other features that Williams discusses in distinguishing humans from nonhuman animals?
In this objection, Singer seems to have misunderstood Williams when he describes the attributes humans typically possess over non-human animals. As noted earlier, Williams (2009, p82-3) explains that appealing to our attributes normally connected with personhood is not an adequate way of justifying moral humanism. Williams is claiming that moral humanism is in of itself a moral position, as is loyalty to one’s culture. Regarding discrimination on the basis of species, the difference of appealing to our humanity in of itself is far from a trivial difference of racists and sexists attempting to justify their racism and/or sexism with false claims or invalid arguments. Our basic reaction to jump in front of car to rescue a human child, and to not do so to rescue a dog, seems at an extremely intuitive level, to be the correct reaction. Whereas, to have the same reaction if we were to react differently if it were to be a black girl instead of a white boy, would indeed be an unjustified prejudice. Also, to defend such a prejudice, it would require quite a compelling argument beyond simply ‘because he’s a white boy’.
The fourth and final objection made by Singer, involves Williams’ challenge ‘Which side are you on?’. Singer (2009, p 100-102) argues that this challenge by Williams parallels with accusations of treason made by the nation-state against those who would speak out against its practices. For example, opposers of the Vietnam War. Singer (2009, p 102) claims that the only relevant question in such circumstances is “What is the right thing to do?”. It seems then that the side Singer would take in the alien arrival thought experiment would be with the collaborationists if the aliens were indeed much more intelligent and benevolent than us. Furthermore, if the aliens thought it would be better that world be rid of us, Singer may very well collaborate with them in this endeavour as well. In addition to this, Williams (2009, p 93-6) did mention that the loyalty to one’s social and cultural group can and has been defended as a moral principle against outsiders attempting to force the native inhabitants to assimilate. This understanding of the ‘which side are you on?’ question is quite different than the one imagined by Singer, so his attempt to parallel this question with accusations of treason fails.
I will now consider some objections to Williams’ moral humanism put forward by Julian Savulescu. Savulescu (2009, p 219-220) disagrees with Williams that appealing to the fact we are human beings is enough to operate as reason. This is because it merely operates as a description of our biology. Also, Savulescu says that it does still parallel with racism or sexism, because just like racists or sexists, moral humanists could continue to treat non-human animals poorly without any self-reflection, just like racists and sexists can do. In addition, they can rationalise their prejudice with false beliefs, such as humans having an immortal soul. However, Williams (2009, p 90-1) does say that to have a concern over how non-human animals should be treated is a part of our human values, so to accept moral humanism does not entail a vicious attitude towards non-human animals. For instance, if I were to dismiss the cruelty of dog fighting on the basis that human life matters more than animal life, then this would tell you a lot about my character as a human being, and it would be a kind of character as a human being you would probably want to avoid. As for appealing to rationalisations such as humans having a soul, I highly doubt that this is the process going through one’s mind when we choose to save a human child over a dog. Regarding appealing to the fact an individual is a human being not being sufficient to operate as a morally relevant reason, A. Lynch (2015, para 11) provides a useful example of special relationships used as morally relevant reason. The example he gives is when we come to our sibling’s aid over a stranger’s, we will justify it by saying “she’s my sister!”. For many who would hear this, they would accept that this would indeed operate enough as a morally relevant reason.
The next objection from Savulescu involves Williams’ view on internal and external reasons. Williams (1995, p 35-6) says that internal reasons are when we say we have a reason for doing something because it is based on a sound piece of reasoning from our motivational set. External reasons, however, are when we have a reason to do something even if it is not in our motivational set. Williams rejects the existence of external reasons. The motivational set, according to Williams (1995, p 36), are all the desires, values, aspirations, goals that we hold to. Regarding the motivational set, Williams (1995, p 39) mentions that these are not necessarily only the superficial motivations. Through imagination, we can appeal to deeper motivations that may appeal to someone’s motivational set that they didn’t take into consideration to change their mind. Williams (1995, p 39) gives an example of trying to persuade a man to be nicer to his wife, and if he at first rejects this, we appeal to things we think would matter to him to convince that he should be nicer to his wife. And if nothing succeeds, it is not at all clear whether appealing to external reasons could do any better.
Savulescu (2009, p 223-5) understands Williams’ motivation set as ‘present desires’, and claims that if we accept this, then this results in unacceptable consequences, where he (2009, p 225) says:
Thus, if we happened not to care about human beings, or persons, we would have no reasons, on the Williams-style account, to care about them. If parents did not care about their children, then they would have no reasons to care about them. And if we did care about persons, we would have a good reason to care about them. If we accept this kind of defence of the human prejudice, anything goes, or at least, anything could go depending on what we happened to care about. There is no reason to care about anything!
Savulescu (2009, p 225) defends external reasons by understanding it as ‘value-based’ reasons. Savulescu then argues that Williams’ defence of appealing to our humanity as morally relevant is based on the internal reason that we desire human well-being over animal well-being; but if we appeal to the external, or value-based reason that humans possess particular properties that make them persons, and the fact that other non-human animals possess some of the same properties of personhood, this gives us a reason to care about them as well. A response to Savulescu’s objection here has been provided by J. Patrone. Patrone (2013, p 33-4) points out that Williams’ account of the motivational set is not limited to only present desires. And this is correct, as the earlier example of the abusive husband case provided by Williams himself demonstrates. As for Savulescu’s claim that if we accept only an internalist view, then if we did not care about our loved ones, we would have no reason to, the same can be applied to any value. Consider the argument Savulescu provides of describing external reasons as value-based reasons. Savulescu (2009, p 255) argues for the description since it is the goodness of certain values that provide reasons for action, regardless of the desires one is holding at the time. This is most likely due to Savulescu’s misunderstanding of the motivational set as only including ‘present desires’. And as can be seen, we could just as easily say to Savulescu ‘if someone had no values, they would have no reason to care about those values’. Therefore, Savulescu poses no threat to Williams’ internal reasons.
The next objection by Savulescu concerns Williams’ arguments concerning the impartial observer. Savulescu (2009, p 225-6), like Singer, argues that Williams’ comments that an impartial observer would destroy the planet is only a threat to a negative utilitarian, and my response to this has already been addressed. However, Savulescu (2009, p 226) takes this argument further by challenging Williams’ claim that we cannot equally care about all the suffering that exists in the world and does this by appealing to that there are many animal rights activists that do care equally about all suffering. This claim about animal rights activists can be seriously doubted. It can be confidently assumed that animal rights activists care a great deal about the suffering about non-human animals, but it would be an extraordinary assumption that many of the animal rights activists would treat the suffering of a non-human animal equally to a human being. If a puppy and a human baby were both in jeopardy and only one could be saved, only the most extreme animal rights activist would treat this as a dilemma. Patrone (2013, p 35-7) also has responded to Savulescu’s (2009, p 226-7) claim that Williams’ discussion of impartial observers is a red herring due to that it moves the conversation to which point of view morality comes from, when the actual conversation should be about what are the morally relevant reasons? And Savulescu says that appealing to ‘it’s a human being’ is insufficient. Similar to Lynch’s response to this matter earlier, Patrone (2013, p 35-7) uses the example of ‘he is my brother’ as a morally relevant reason.
Savulescu (2009, p 232) does however address the concept of special relationships and argues that it is consistent with personhood. This is because it involves properties in greater or smaller degrees that justifies the partiality, but also compels us to expand our concern beyond our kin. The example Savulesku (2009, p 232) gives is we care more about our brother than a stranger because some of the personhood properties are greater in that relationship than with a stranger. So, we can care more about our brother, but still care about the stranger. Personhood may be rationalised in this kind of way to make it consistent with our reactions regarding special relationships; but it seems to be far more plausible to say that when we are pressed to justify our partiality, we would more likely to appeal to our special relationships in of themselves, not the properties they possess. Furthermore, if we were to take a utilitarian, or a consequentialist approach to this reasoning, the special relationships experienced by a stranger as opposed to my sibling would cancel each other out and would result in me being compelled to treat both equally. For example, if I said my sibling matters more because of the extra personhood properties that come about from the relationship, the stranger would say that they too have siblings, and they have the same properties, so what makes preserving your relationship any more important than preserving mine. The answer could only be: ‘because it is mine’.
So, Singer and Savulescu have not been successful in challenging moral humanism. Savulescu’s argument on justifying some degree of partiality towards human beings by appealing to properties of personhood was not very convincing. However, there has been a similar argument from Shelly Kagan which does attempt to justify preferences to human beings not by appealing to moral humanism or typical personhood, but modal personhood. And it is this argument I will now address.
Kagan (2016, p 2-3) addresses speciesism in the absolute sense of the concept, which he means humans matter more regardless of who’s perspective it comes from, hence it is different from William’s understanding of moral humanism. However, Kagan’s view is in line with Williams’ that moral humanism is not that humans matter in all aspects and non-human animals do not matter in any aspect, but that all things considered equal, humans matter more. From this point, Kagan (2016, p 4) explains Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests as treating all ‘like’ interests equally. Kagan (2016, p 5-6) rejects Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests for two reasons. The first is that the principle does not tell us anything about what are the morally relevant differences and what are the morally irrelevant differences. The second is that asking who has the pain can be morally relevant and gives an example of a guilty man in prison as opposed to an innocent man. And since this shows that who has the pain can make a morally relevant difference, it is logically possible to say that it is a human being receiving the pain is morally relevant, and Kagan (2016, p 5) claims that Singer makes no argument that it is not.
Kagan (2016, p 6) anticipates a possible objection by Singer that asserting that it is a human being is nothing more than a brute appeal to..
This essay is about relationships: relationships with fauna, with place, and with what is sacred country in the Australian context. Beginning with some general questions about fauna and place identity, the discussion then shifts to a particular context wherein which connections with fauna are embedded in a wider network of relationships of such significance as to be constitutive of identity as it may be broadly conceived. Drawing on Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Tyerrtye – what it means to be an Aboriginal Person.(1) I will offer a non-indigenous interpretation of the nature of the relationships described in her book, an interpretation which develops an ontology of internal relations.
Questioning the place of ‘place’ in creaturely relationships
Standing in a specific place and asking after one’s relationship to fauna can appear to some an odd and perhaps confusing question. Surely the answer is true in whatever place one stands? – this or that, animal belongs to this, or that, species, just as you and I belong to the human species. Being of different species, we are only related in so far as we all belong to the ‘tree of life’; our togetherness is shaped according to evolutionary relationships and evolutionary processes, and that is all.
But, of course, many will argue that ‘that is not all’ – our ‘relationship’ is in fact not singular but plural, we share many different kinds of relationships with the various creatures in our lives, and these relationships are sometimes clear, sometimes confusing: for example, while we eat this or that species of animal, we do not eat these others; while we can and do kill, ride, hunt, sacrifice, and wear the skins of these creatures, we cannot and do not, or do not usually, with other creatures.
But this is not – or not really – the source of the confusion to which I refer. The potential for confusion lies with the role, significance and/or, perhaps, emphasis of the notion of ‘place’ – the ‘place of place’ if you like – in the question. Despite the metaphor, our ‘tree of life’ relationship is ‘placeless’. Does place really matter? Specifically, does place matter in understanding the nature of relationships including those between humans and other animals?
The Red Kangaroo-to-the-Environment Relation
Perhaps such criticisms of the tree of life metaphor are unwarranted. After all, it is a metaphor for evolutionary processes that occur in particular places and in particular environments; indeed ‘place’ understood as a larger environment is one of the key factors at play in speciation. For example, the red kangaroo is but one of many species of marsupial macropods native to Australia. Known in Linnaean taxonomic terms as Macropus Rufus, the red kangaroo is the largest of the macropod (big foot) families. Thus, male red kangaroos can measure up to 2m tall and weigh up to 85kg. This particular species of kangaroo is most commonly found in the semi-arid and arid parts of the Australian interior and it has adapted to the harsh conditions of its environment in ways that allow it to survive and thrive where other animal species would perish.(2)
One of the metaphysical accounts we might give for such species-to-environment relationship invokes the idea of ‘relational ontology’. Relational Ontology – as its generally understood – refers to a metaphysical theory concerning the nature of existence that promotes the primacy of relationality. According to this view, we do not and simply cannot understand a being’s identity – the very sense of its existence – in its isolation from, for example, the ecosystem of which it is a part. If we apply this kind of thought to the red kangaroo, this particular species is the type of species that it is because of its relation to the environment, to the ecosystem, in which it is located. This is the case for all creaturely beings: they are what they are because of their evolutionary interactions with their environment, and, (for ecologists, at least) this interaction is reciprocal.
I wish to take this line of thinking one step further and to suggest the view that the relationship described here is specifically one of internal relations. According to the late 19th /early 20th century philosopher F. H. Bradley, one of the major proponents of an ontology of internal relations, ‘a relation must at both ends affect and pass into, the being of its terms’.(3) Essentially, the idea here is that a relation between two or more items is held to be internal if the natures and identities of the items in question depend in some way upon the relation itself, external if they do not. Thus, the red kangaroo species-to-environment relation is internal because this species could not be the species of marsupial macropod that it is, without standing in relation to the environment of the Australian interior in the way that it does. In essence, the identity and the very nature of the red kangaroo are dependent upon this very relation. I will return to and pick up this idea of ‘internal relations’ again more fully in a moment.
Scholars have described the nature of relational ontology in a variety of ways, with certain of these ways reflecting little confusion about the role of ‘place’ in issues about relationships, including those between human and animal. Thus, Stan Wilson, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Canada, describes the identity of First Nation peoples as one that differs markedly from that of many Euro-Canadians. Where the latter is conceptualised in terms of the independence of the individual, the concept of ‘self’ shared by First Nation peoples is one best characterised as self-as-relationship. (4) On this reading, ‘selves’ are to be understood as being ‘constituted by their relationships with all living things’, as well as their being ‘rooted in the context of community and place’. Other living creatures will shape people’s identities, as when referring to oneself as ‘bear’, ‘squirrel’ or ‘thunder being’.(5) However, according to Wilson, this is not simply a name used to identify particular characteristics of a person, but to identify that person as that particular being. Here we have the description of a set of relations that go far beyond species-to-environment, for they are relationships that are at once communal, interdependent, and familial: while not mentioning kinship directly, Wilson’s account certainly implies it.
Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Story
Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM, an Akarre woman and Arrernte Language speaker, in her publication Iwenhe Tyerrtye – what it means to be an Aboriginal person (2010), as told to Barry McDonald Perrurle,(6) has revealed a wealth of knowledge regarding Central Australian Aboriginal worldviews, much of which emphasises the essentialness of relationships, particularly those of kinship. As we shall see, stories and their telling are fundamental to central Australian Aboriginal identity. Iwenhe Tyerrtye is Margaret Kemarre Turner’s own story of how she sees things as an Aboriginal person. The following descriptive definitions constitute direct quotations from Iwenhe Tyerrtye. They are included as such, rather than that I adopt the academic tradition of paraphrasing, because the knowledge revealed is intimately tied to her story and in such a way as itself to be revealing of the profound significance of kinship connections.
The quotations occur at the outset of particular chapters, with each emphasising the centrality of the Central Australian Aboriginal peoples’ connection with the Land, where ‘the roots of the country and its people are twined together’.(7) As Turner phrases it:
“We are part of the Land.
The Land is us, and we are the Land.
That’s how we hold our Land.”(8)
“The Story is the Land, and the Land is the Story.
The Story holds the people,
and the people live inside the Story.
The Story lives inside the people,
And the Land lives inside the people also.
It goes all ways to hold the Land.”(9)
“Our kinship shows us the way, the rule of the law.
It has come from our traditional Land,
And also from the beginning
To know who we are.”(10)
From these descriptive definitions it is clear that, for Aboriginal people who share Turner’s worldview, their identity is to be understood not in isolation of other things, but rather, as constituted by relationships with their Land, Language, People, Animals, Natural Phenomena, the Sacred, and their Story. Yet to list them in this way, is perhaps, to fall back into the trap of missing the very thing that is important, that is, their holistic relational essence. To tease out the nature of this ‘essence’ I will now take up ecologist A.E. Newsome’s observations suggesting coherence between red kangaroo ecology and Arrernte ‘eco-mythology’, as well as the idea of internal relations mentioned previously, and develop them further in relation to Turner’s teachings.
A.E. Newsome on Red Kangaroo Ecology and on ‘Eco-Mythology’
Over his long professional career Newsome had published a number of seminal papers on red kangaroo ecology in the central Australian region, especially in relation to drought management.(11) In 1980, moving slightly outside the traditional parameters of ecological analysis, he had published a paper in the journal Mankind entitled ‘The Eco-Mythology of the Red Kangaroo in Central Australia’. (12) In this paper Newsome had documented his observations of an existing congruence between Arrernte traditional stories and the practice of ecological sustainability, with particular relevance to the drought-affected habitats of red kangaroo populations. From his conversations with Aboriginal elders of the region and from his readings of anthropologist T. G. H. Strehlow’s work,(13) Newsome had been able to locate the various totemic sites of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming tracks and to identify a direct correspondence with red kangaroo ecology.
His acknowledgment of this correspondence provides an opportunity to explore further a non-Aboriginal understanding of the nature of relationships in the red kangaroo context, especially in light of Turner’s teachings.
There are a number of key concepts of import, and perhaps a number of variations upon which these terms might be articulated, but initially four stand out. They are Country (or Land), Red Kangaroos, Ancestral Beings and Arrernte People.
The Kinship of Country and Its People
In light of Turner’s account, ‘Country’ or ‘Land’ for Arrernte People signifies much more than simply the land of a particular location. People refer to ‘Country’ in the same way as they talk about family. ‘Country’ is an entity. The relationship between people and their Country is not metaphorically one of kinship, but, rather, it is one of kinship. For example, at one point in Iwenhe Tyerrtye, Turner refers to Land as her ‘Mother’, but not in the way that non-Aboriginal people might refer to their homeland metaphorically as the motherland; rather, the Land is understood as close kin:
We can also say that the Land is our mother… Because my mother comes from there, my grandfather comes from there, arrenge atyinhe’s from there, all of them from that patchwork of Lands. And my mother especially. And that’s how mother is our Land. It gave our mother birth, and also, she gave us birth. Alakenhe: the Land is our mother.(14)
The idea of country understood as an entity also applies to the idea of ‘place’ as more explicitly stated. Researching the concept of ‘place’ among the Arrernte People, linguist David Wilkins recognized that topographical places are never conceived as simply isolatable points in space. Rather, it is the case that
a named place is a point within a network of relations and it is these relations that give it definition. These relations are not only, or even mainly, with other places, but also with people and things through kinship and totemic affiliation. The language reflects these associations at the levels of lexicon, grammar and discourse.(15)
I will pick up on the ‘relational’ theme indicated here shortly. Wilkins’ mention of the idea of totemism signals something of our third term that we need highlight.
Many animals constitute important totem animals, and, as such, they are described and classified in very different ways to the Linnaean taxonomic system, for example. What is conceived here is a purposive relationship between individuals or groups on the one hand, and various animals (or natural phenomena) on the other. It is again one of kinship, and it designates numerous responsibilities with regard to both the animals themselves and to the people of the same totemic group. People of the same ‘flesh’ – or ‘skin’ as Turner describes it – whether it be bandicoot, emu, or kangaroo for example, when following the traditional ways marry according to Skin groups and often they avoid eating their totem.(16)
This idea of ‘flesh’ or ‘skin’ brings to the fore the very important idea of Ancestral Beings, our third term. Such beings created the Land, the Law, the People, the Dreaming, indeed everything, establishing the rules and responsibilities, and all the rites and rituals as they went. Present day people and animals are descendants of the ever-present totemic Ancestors, whether patrilineally or matrilineally. Thus, Turner is able to capture the nature of the relationship between Arrernte People, their Ancestor Beings and Country, in the following way:
Kinship comes out of the country itself, it comes from the Ancestor Beings. Aboriginal people have grown up deep inside this from Creation, and they live within it always and forever.(17)
I would now like to draw together these terms thus far described and explain the internal nature of their relations with reference to Red Kangaroo Dreaming particularly.
You will have noticed that the meaning of each of the terms thus far described was dependent in some way on the meaning of the other terms. This is well brought out in the Red Kangaroo Dreaming. Red-kangaroo-country is, in one sense, poorly represented by any topographical map, not because such maps are geographically suspect, but because they do not represent country as entity. Red Kangaroo People look after Country because it is ‘kin’. Places are place-entities within a network of relations to people, animals and Ancestral Beings and they are not isolated points in space. The names of place-entities themselves also bear this out. For example, ara is Arrernte for ‘kangaroo,’ and so place-entities with names that include ara explicitly identify their relation to people, animals and Ancestral Beings, many of which Newsome recounts.(18) When a red kangaroo man points to a red kangaroo and says ‘this is my uncle’, for example, both their natures and identities are dependent upon the relation they share. The relation itself passes into and affects the being of each, and is asymmetrically internal.(19)
But perhaps the more profound summation to give here is that all relations, at core, are indeed symmetrical: that the order of the terms is reversible, or, more importantly, that some crucial aspect of their being is at once one in the same. And we can conceive of this metaphysical position as explaining the relation between all of the terms – People, Land, and Animals – for all, together, affect, and are affected by their relations; all have within them a Dreaming essence in virtue of their relation to the Red Kangaroo Ancestral Beings And all, as such, constitute and are constituted by the Red Kangaroo Dreaming.
And Behind All This – Story
There is one term that I have not yet discussed, though mentioned previously, which is also embedded in the kinds of relations that I have thus far discussed – the idea of Story. Newsome was granted access to some of the Red Kangaroo Traditional Stories in order to locate the dreaming tracks, sacred soaks, and sacred sites concerning the red kangaroos. Such access had enabled him to identify the ecological dimensions of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and so attempt matching that of his own knowledge regarding red kangaroo habitation. Turner’s teachings in Iwenhe Tyerrtye go much deeper and reveal the depth of connection between traditional stories and all other things. Following the non-Aboriginal view that I have offered thus far, a traditional story in virtue of its internal relations with the other terms well mentioned may have a living presence beyond what a non-Aboriginal person would traditionally envisage.
Let us compare this narrative with Rudyard Kipling’s The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo as an example.(20) The main characters in this short story – Old Man Kangaroo, Nqong, and Yellow-Dog Dingo – are, we might say, internally related to the narrative and vice versa. The narrative is the narrative that it is because of its relation to the characters, and the characters are who they are because of their relation to the narrative: both are determined by their relation. But none of the characters exist outside of the narrative: it would be meaningless to say Nqong is related to this or that family and Old Man Kangaroo drinks water from the soak over there, unless of course one is creating a new fictional narrative.
But for the traditional stories told by Aboriginal people as Turner describes it, the ‘characters’ and the ‘narrative’ in virtue of their connection to Land, Language, People, Animals, and the Ancestral Beings, all also exist in the world. All are internally related and thus all are defined by their relationships. The present and ongoing understanding of this relation also bears this out.
There is no sense in traditional stories of a beginning reflective of the ‘once upon a time’ trope, and so, to associate it with such stories would be to misunderstand their temporal nature.(21) Altyerrenge – an Arrernte word originally translated by Frank Gillen and Baldwin Spencer as ‘Dream times’, (22) and which later evolved to become the Dreamtime or Dreaming – according to Turner “doesn’t mean the olden days, it means always was, and nowadays as well”.(23) She prefers the descriptor ‘Traditional Country Stories’ and while the content of such stories may appear to non-Aboriginal people to belong to a mythical past, such a reading misses the very essence of the story’s being, its existence (its story-entity-ness), which is given in virtue of its connections – its internal relations – to their Land. To repeat –
the Story is the Land, and the Land is the Story. The Story holds the people, and the people live inside the Story. The story lives inside the people, and the Land lives inside the people also. It goes all ways to hold the Land.(24)
Turner’s very descriptions emphasise the internality of the relations thus far described, including those with Story. There is no sense here of bonds simply being between participants: the “holding” is not from the outside; rather it is the interior embrace of kinship: familial, ancestral, hereditary.
I have started with questions about relationships, relationships between people and place, between people, place and animals, and between people, place, animals and the sacred. To think of these relationships as simply occurring between participants – or as selves-in-relationship rather than selves-as-relationship – is to miss the point. Red Kangaroos are not simply in a relationship with their environment, their very existence is constituted by this relationship. This is also true for certain other creature to human relationships. What I found in Margaret Kemarre Turner’s teachings were descriptions of profound relationships with Australian Land (or Country), animals, natural phenomena, the Sacred, and significantly, Story, all of which give rise the to very existence and identity of each of the participants. A non-Aboriginal philosophical account of these relationships, as I have offered here, should include an ontology of internal relations, which recognises that each participant is constituted by the relationships in which they stand to one another for the participants are who they are because of all of their relationships.
1.Margaret Kemarre Turner (OAM), Iwenhe Tyerrtye – what it means to be an Aboriginal person, as told to Barry McDonald Perrurle, with transl. by Veronica Perrurle Dobson, Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010. As described in the summary of her book by the National Library of Australia, Margaret Kemarre Turner,
is a proud mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. These responsible relationships are her primary motivation to document for younger Aboriginal people, alongside her student and alere Barry McDonald Perrule, her cultured understanding of the deep intertwining roots that hold all Australian Aboriginal people. Trove Collection, National Library of Australia, http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/47887367.
2. For an introduction to the ecology of kangaroos and wallabies more generally, see, for example, S. M. Jackson and K. Vernes, Kangaroo: Portrait of an Extraordinary Marsupial, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010.
3.F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, 2nd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897, p. 322.
4.Stan Wilson, ‘Self-as-Relationship in Indigenous Research’, Canadian Journal of Native Education 25, 2 (2001), p. 91.
5. Ibid., p. 92.
6. Barry McDonald, Australian Folklore, ‘Thunderbolt, Folksong and the Legend of the Noble Robber’, Australian Folklore 8, August, 1993, pp. 40-47 and ‘Some Account of Kangaroo Hunting on the Northern Tablelands of NSW, 1840-1880, and the Evidence of Folksong’, Australian Folklore 10, July, 1995, pp. 108-132.
7. Turner, op. cit., p. 15.
8. Ibid., p. 1.
9. Ibid., p. 45.
10. Ibid., p. 1.
11. See for example, A. E. Newsome, ‘Onoestrus in the red kangaroo Megaleia rufa (Desmarest)’, Australian Journal of Zoology 12, 1964, pp. 9-17; A. E. Newsome, ‘Oestrus in the lactating red kangaroo’, Australian Journal of Zoology 12, 1964, pp. 315-321; A. E. Newsome, ‘The abundance of red kangaroos, Megaleia rufa (Desmarest), in central Australia’, Australian Journal of Zoology 13, 1965, pp. 269-287; A. E. Newsome, ‘The distribution of red kangaroos, Megaleia rufa (Desmarest), about sources of persistent food and water in central Australia, Australian Journal of Zoology 13, 1965, pp. 289-299, and A. E. Newsome, ‘Reproduction in natural populations of a red kangaroo, Megaleia rufa (Desmarest), in central Australia, Australian Journal of Zoology, 13, pp. 735-759.
12. A.E. Newsome, ‘The Eco-Mythology of the Red Kangaroo in Central Australia’, Mankind 12, December, 1980, pp. 327-333. In 1990 Mankind became the Australian Journal of Anthropology.
13. Two of the publications used by Newsome to locate the sites include T. G. H. Strehlow, Aranda Traditions, Melbourne, 1947, and T. G. H. Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia, Sydney, 1971.
14. Turner, op. cit., p.18.
15. David P. Wilkins, ‘The concept of Place among the Arrernte’, in Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges and Jane Simpson (eds.), The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 34.
16. ‘The marriage, the two people who married inside the apmereyanhe, they marry from the strong of that land, they marry through the flesh of that skin group, and also through utnenge, the flesh of that Land. That’s country marriage.’ [Turner, op. cit., p. 25]
‘But people like kartweye mape, kereke artweye, those who have an animal for their totem, well some of them they might not eat that kere. Ankerreke-artweye mape – Emu Dreamers – well, they don’t eat emu. People around here don’t eat perentie meat ‘cause that’s itnekenhe aknganentye-arle – that’s their totem, some people call it. ‘Cause those animals are part of them, that’s why..
“If he really does think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons”
Boswell, Life of Johnson
Several prominent philosophers have claimed that facts about evolution, and especially facts the natural history of our species, imply an error theory of morality. In what follows I will argue that they are wrong. My immediate target will be the recent work of Richard Joyce, but my argument, if successful, should also count against others who have made similar claims, especially J. L. Mackie and Michael Ruse. Since evolutionary arguments have been the central (and often only) arguments for an error theory of morality, this will be a considerable service to those who are reluctant (for whatever reason) to accept such a theory.
What Do Error Theorists Believe?
In the past, error theorists have argued that we should not believe moral propositions because none of them are true. Joyce (2007), following Kalderon (2005), calls this “atheistic moral error theory”. Joyce now advocates a weaker position, which he calls “agnostic moral error theory”, according to which we should not believe moral propositions because we have no reason to believe that any of them are true:
… so long as this distinction is borne in mind, I am happy to accept the label “moral error theory” for the view argued for. The two forms of error theory are united in that both recommend that we not believe moral propositions – one because the propositions are untrue, the other because we have no right to endorse them.(1)
It would be too easy to accuse Joyce of undermining his own position, by giving the words ‘recommend’ and ‘right’ in this passage a moral interpretation. Context makes it clear that Joyce is not claiming that we have no moral right to believe any moral propositions. For that of course would itself be a moral proposition. His language in this passage is intended to be epistemic, rather than moral, and despite the incautious talk of “recommendation” in the above passage, he elsewhere explicitly refrains from recommending that we not believe moral propositions; admitting that belief in at least some of them might be justified on non-epistemic (and of course non-moral) grounds, which he characterises variously as “pragmatic” or “prudential”. This of course leaves him with the challenge of explaining the force of “pragmatic” or “prudential” considerations in non-moral terms. He makes no effort to do this and it’s not at all clear to me that it can be done(2), but I will leave this point for now, because I am not principally concerned with the practical implications of accepting error theory in either of its forms, but with the arguments for error theory.
Joyce’s agnostic moral error theory is, as he says, a form of moral scepticism. It is important to note that this scepticism is, and is acknowledged by Joyce to be, extremely radical and counter-intuitive, and that it is not to be confused with more modest forms of moral scepticism. Most of us think that some degree of scepticism about some moral issues is epistemically (and perhaps morally) justified. That is, most of us have occasion to recognise that sometimes we don’t know what to believe about a certain moral issue, and so we refrain from making a moral judgement in that case. Agnostic error theory goes much further than that:
Note how radical this conclusion is. It is not a matter of allowing oneself to have an open mind about, say, the wrongness of abortion or the rightness of cancelling Third World debt; rather, it is a matter of maintaining an open mind about whether there exists anything that is morally right and wrong, of accepting the possibility that describing the world in moral terms is in the same ballpark as taking horoscopes seriously or believing that ancestral spirits move invisibly among us.(3)
In either its agnostic or atheistic form, moral error theory is meant to be counterintuitive. It claims that ‘we’ (ordinary folk and most philosophers) are systematically mistaken. As such it is clear that the burden of proof is with the error theorist. He or she must come up with a valid (or at least very strong) argument from (almost) indubitable premises.
Moral Scepticism and G. E. Moore
I have begun with Joyce’s conclusion, rather than his argument for that conclusion because I want to begin with a move analogous to that which G. E. Moore made against another radical form of scepticism, scepticism about the “external world”. Moore argued that, the falsehood of a sceptical conclusion such as “I do not know that this is a hand” is better known than the premises of any argument that might appear to establish that it is true. So, the appropriate response to such a sceptical argument will always be to reject the conclusion and, if one has the time and inclination, try to find out where the argument has gone wrong; that is try to identify which premise is false, or to demonstrate that the argument is invalid.
Are there any “Moorean facts”(4) of this kind in the moral domain? In other words, are there any moral propositions, so obvious, that no more obvious premises could possibly be found to use in an argument which challenged them? I believe there are – slavery is morally wrong, torturing children to death for pleasure is morally wrong, the holocaust was morally wrong (strikingly it’s generally easier to find clearcut examples of moral wrongness than of moral rightness). The moral error theorist’s position that we do not know these things is a reductio of any argument he or she could possibly offer in support of it.(5) Whatever premises he uses, he will inevitably be attempting to undermine something highly certain with something less certain.
In what follows I will attempt to identify where Joyce’s argument has gone wrong, but even if I can’t locate the fault, I’ll still know it’s there. Socrates’s advice that we should follow an “argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us”, is not always good advice. Whether we should follow a particular argument depends, amongst other things, precisely on the issue of where it leads us.
Before proceeding it’s important to emphasise that I am not raising a moral objection to Joyce’s error theory. Nor am I objecting to it merely on the grounds that it seems counter-intuitive. Joyce anticipates both of these objections in the following passage:
… the moral sceptic can hardly be defeated by moral condemnation of her position. If one is inclined to reject any form of moral scepticism, yet underlying one’s motivation is a moral consideration, then the theory under scrutiny has something to say about that consideration: that it is false or unjustified. Any theory that explains the presence of widespread error is, ipso facto, counterintuitive. Thus, that moral scepticism may seem to many obviously false and pernicious is exactly what the moral skeptic predicts, and therefore cannot be employed as a consideration against the view.(6)
But my version of Moore’s argument is not that belief in (or advocacy of) moral scepticism is morally wrong. Even if that were true, it would be no argument against the truth of moral scepticism. Nor does my argument rely merely on the fact that moral scepticism “seems obviously false”. Many seemingly obvious falsehoods have been established as true. But only when still more obvious truths were used to demonstrate that appearances were in that case misleading. The Moorean argument I am endorsing is that, in this case, there are no premises that could be that obvious. It is striking, therefore that Joyce does not even claim any great certainty for one of the premises of one of his arguments, describing it, as we shall shortly see, as “quite possible”.(7)
It is time now to consider Joyce’s arguments, confident that something has gone wrong, in the hope of learning something in the process.
The Old Evolutionary Arguments for Error Theory
In The Evolution of Morality Joyce presents an argument from analogy in which you are asked to suppose that there is a certain pill, which he calls a “belief pill”. This pill disposes anyone who takes it to form the belief that Napoleon lost at Waterloo. Now, suppose you are going through life believing that Napoleon did lose at Waterloo (as presumably you have been) when you discover “beyond a shred of doubt” that you have taken this belief pill. Joyce says that this discovery should undermine your belief that Napoleon lost at Waterloo, and furthermore that if an antidote to the belief pill is available, you should take it.(8) In this analogy the belief pill is presented as an analogue of natural selection, and the belief that Napoleon won at Waterloo is presented as an analogue of the moral beliefs you find yourself with at the moment (although Joyce isn’t explicit about what is supposed to be the analogue of taking the antidote pill, I suppose it must be the act of reading his book. It didn’t work for me.).
Analogical arguments of this kind for moral error theory have been extremely popular. In Joyce’s earlier book, The Myth of Morality, for example, he compared our situation to that of a paranoid person, John, who believes that Sally is persecuting him. Sally might be persecuting him, but given that we know that John is paranoid, we have little reason to rely on John’s testimony. He would believe Sally was persecuting him, whether she was or not. Similarly, the arguments goes, we would have the moral beliefs we do whether or not they were true, so we have no reason to believe they are true.(9) Michael Ruse has offered a similar argument, comparing our moral beliefs to those of a soldier who, as a result of traumatic experiences in the First World War, develops superstitious beliefs about life after death. Again, the idea is that there is an adequate explanation of why the beliefs in question are held, which is independent of whether or not they are true.(10) A very similar argument has been used to promote scepticism about religion. Suppose you become convinced beyond a shred of doubt that belief in God confers an evolutionary advantage on believers, as some scientists have argued.(11) This discovery would give you good reason to believe that you would believe in God (supposing you do) whether God existed or not. This discovery, so the argument goes, would constitute a good reason for suspending judgement about the existence of God, pending further enquiry.
In What Makes Us Moral Neil Levy accepts this argument for agnosticism about God, but rejects the analogy between belief in morality and belief in God:
Morality, they [Joyce and Ruse] say, is a product of our minds, and has little to do with what is out there. But they miss a crucial difference between religion and morality. Religion is, precisely, concerned with what is “out there”. If there is a God, his existence is entirely independent of our belief in him … morality is not like this. It is not independent of us and our beliefs, in the way in which God (and neutrons and giraffes and Italy) is. Instead, it is at least partially constituted of our beliefs and moral emotions. If pretty much all rational beings share a moral reaction (for example the strongly held belief that torture is morally wrong), and that reaction is a response to actual facts in the world (in this case, the suffering of victims of torture) then the fact that there is nothing beyond the feelings of observers and victims to refer to is neither here nor there. We have all we need to constitute moral facts.(12)
This position grants the error theorist too much. It is central to the way most of us think about moral beliefs that they are beliefs which purport to be about something beyond the feelings of observers and victims. Pretty much all rational beings can be wrong about morality. Indeed, in the case of torture and slavery, pretty much all rational beings did get it wrong for millennia.
Levy compares morality to “secondary properties” such as colour. “We are mistaken”, he says “if we think that colours are real in the same way as squares are, if we think that redness is simply “out there” like atoms and giraffes. But this is no reason to think that colours aren’t real at all.”(13) It is telling that Joyce also accepts the analogy (which originates with Hume) between morality and colours. The difference between Joyce and Levy is that the former is an error theorist about colour as well as morality, while the latter is an error theorist about neither. Levy defends realism about colour by saying “The fact that we use colors for such important tasks as controlling traffic demonstrates that we have no qualms about their existence.”(14) But the fact that belief in the existence of colours is useful is entirely consistent with the error theorist’s view that this belief is false (or can’t be known to be true). Indeed it is an essential feature of Joyce’s argument for an error theory of morality that moral beliefs have been useful in helping our ancestors survive and reproduce. Levy’s attempt to save morality from the Joyce/Ruse arguments by saying that moral beliefs, unlike belief in God or belief that Napoleon won at Waterloo, concern what is “in here” rather than “out there” is unsuccessful. There seem to be two ways to make sense of it would mean for morality to be “in the head”. One is to say that it is in the head in the way imaginary maladies are in the head (i.e. it is an illusion), but that cannot be what Levy means, since that is precisely what the error theorist is saying. The other is to say that morality’s subject matter is in the head, that is that it concerns mental states (or maybe brain states). But this is palpably not true. Some moral beliefs are about mental or brain states, for example, moral beliefs to the effect that it is wrong to have certain thoughts or wrong to take certain brain altering chemicals, but in general moral beliefs are not beliefs about our own psychology or about our own brains.(15)
A better response to the Joyce/Ruse argument is as follows. It may or may not be true that some beliefs (such as belief in God) gave our ancestors a reproductive advantage and that this explains why these beliefs persist to this day, but it is palpably not true that our moral beliefs as a whole can be explained in this way. For example, I believe that the recent invasion of Iraq was immoral. But this belief it cannot be the case that I have this belief because it is a belief that gave my ancestors a reproductive advantage, for the simple and obvious reason that they cannot have had this belief. Beliefs about Iraq, and this belief in particular, are of too recent origin for natural selection to have had any influence on their development.
In his most recent book Joyce in effect concedes this point, admitting that the effect of natural selection on human psychology is not after all like that of his imaginary belief pills.(16) This leads him to present a new analogical argument for error theory. In doing so, however, he moves from an apparently valid argument with a clearly false premise, to an argument is invalid, and hence which should not be accepted even if its premises were true. I will then argue that in fact that this second argument also has a false premise, and draw some conclusions about the dangers
Joyce’s New Evolutionary Argument for Error Theory
Joyce has now distanced himself from the view (implied by his original argument) that each of our moral beliefs is determined by natural selection. He commits himself instead to the following, more modest claim:
There is a specialised innate mechanism (or series of mechanisms) whose function is to enable [the acquisition of moral concepts]. This mechanism, I hypothesize, comes prepared to categorize the world in morally normative terms; moral concepts may be innate even if moral beliefs are not.”(17)
Joyce alters his Napoleon example to accommodate this concession. Joyce now asks us to suppose that his imaginary pills, rather than generating particular beliefs, dispose you to “form beliefs involving a particular concept – a concept that otherwise wouldn’t figure in your beliefs.” Now suppose the concept in question is that of ‘Napoleon’:
Without this pill you would never have formed any beliefs about Napoleon at all. We needn’t worry too much about what other factors determine the precise content of these Napoleon beliefs; perhaps it is determined randomly, or perhaps there are certain environmental triggers that can send the Napoleon beliefs one way or the other. Suppose again that you discover beyond any doubt that you were slipped one of these pills a few years ago. Does this undermine all the beliefs you have concerning Napoleon? Of course it does. …. this wouldn’t show the belief to be false, but until you find some reliable evidence to confirm or disconfirm your Napoleon beliefs, you should take the antidote.(18)
But not only is it not obvious that this would undermine all your beliefs concerning Napoleon, it is not obvious that it would undermine any of them. The problem with Joyce’s argument here is his blithe assertion that we needn’t concern ourselves with what the “other factors” determining the precise content of our Napoleon beliefs are. Suppose the other factors - “the environmental triggers” - include evidence that Napoleon existed, and that he lost at Waterloo, and so on. Would the discovery that you wouldn’t have been able to form these beliefs, because you wouldn’t have been able to form the concept of ‘Napoleon’ if you hadn’t taken a certain pill, undermine those beliefs? Of course it wouldn’t. You now have evidence that a certain concept, wherever it came from, corresponds to reality.
Of course Joyce wouldn’t accept that analogy (even though it’s his own analogy) because he doesn’t think of moral propositions as amenable to evidence or indeed (it appears) any kind of rational defence. But the closest to he comes to an argument for this view is to point to the existence of “intractable moral disagreement”.(19) Joyce claims that “No moral judgment has ever been made by a human being for which there has not been another perfectly intelligent and informed person disposed to disagree with it.”(20) Whether this is true or not is highly debatable, and dependent on interpretation. What is a “perfectly intelligent and informed person”? Should we include “moral intelligence” or “moral information” in our understanding of such a person? If Joyce says we should not, on the grounds that there are no such things, he would appear to be begging the question. At any rate intractable disagreement is hardly confined to moral issues. It is widespread in science and even mathematics. Joyce seems to accept this point, but insists nevertheless that morality is different because “the striking thing is that we have no agreed on method of solving such [moral] disputes”.(21) But disagreement about methodology is hardly unique to morality. Disputes in science are often intractable precisely because the disputants can’t agree on what it would take to settle the matter one way or the other.
Morality and Pro-social Behaviour
Consider the other the other half of Joyce’s argument, the part that claims that our moral concepts are the product of natural selection (the Napolean concept pill).(22) Now, what purpose would natural selection have in equipping us with moral concepts, and hence a propensity to form moral judgements? Joyce identifies the central purpose as follows - “moral judgments bolster the motivation to cooperate”.(23) Proponents of evolutionary arguments for an error theory of morality invariably go to great lengths to demonstrate the adaptive benefits of cooperative (or “pro-social”) behaviour. They are right that it would not be surprising if natural selection found mechanisms to boost cooperation. Indeed it is abundantly clear that it has in fact found many such mechanisms. What is not plausible is that our moral concepts are (or are the products of) such a mechanism. Contrary to Joyce, moral judgments do not in general bolster the motivation to cooperate. A little reflection shows that they are at least as likely to bolster the motivation to refrain from cooperation.
Like many writers on the evolution of morality, Joyce takes the cooperative strategy in a prisoner’s dilemma as the model of cooperative behaviour in general. So let’s look at the example of a prisoner’s dilemma that Joyce himself uses.(24)
For Joyce, moral concepts are an adaptation that boosts an organism’s prospects of getting the top left outcome (mutual cooperation) instead of the bottom right outcome (mutual defection) that it might otherwise get. The idea that morality is a way of bringing about the benefits of mutual cooperation is commonplace, arguably going back at least to Hobbes.(25) It has often influenced discussion of normative ethics as well as meta-ethics. But a little reflection shows that our actual moral concepts do not track the distinction between cooperative and uncooperative behaviour at all. Recycling is cooperative behaviour and we generally judge it to be morally good, but petrol companies getting together to raise prices is cooperative behaviour (and one that can be modelled as a prisoner’s dilemma) and we generally judge it to be morally bad. To take a more extreme example the holocaust involved a great deal of cooperative behaviour, and we judge it to be very morally bad indeed.
Of course it would be possible for Joyce to concede that these days our moral concepts often do not boost our motivation to cooperate (he might even be pushed to concede that they now more often serve the opposite purpose), but still insist that that is the purpose they originally came into existence to serve. For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that our neolithic ancestor’s evolved concepts endorsing cooperation, and that it may be appropriate for us to think of these concepts as being (in a very broad sense) moral concepts. Joyce’s argument, however, requires us to say, not only that these concepts were genuinely moral concepts, but also that they are our moral concepts. I submit that they clearly are not. At most it seems that the evolution of prosocial behaviour can explain, not our moral concepts, but some proto-moral concepts from which ours developed. Consequently, Joyce would be entitled (epistemically) to apply his error theory to the moral beliefs of our neolithic ancestors (and also perhaps to our pre-school children) for whom ‘morally wrong’ is equivalent to something like ‘cheating’ in the former case (or ‘being naughty’ in the latter), but he would not be entitled to apply it to our moral concepts.
So, even assuming Joyce’s admittedly speculative account of the early evolution of morality is correct, our morality is not undermined, anymore than chemistry is undermined by the fact that it can trace its origins back to alchemy or astronomy is undermined by the fact that it can trace its origins back to astrology.
Joyce discusses the quote by Dr. Johnson which is the epigraph to this paper. He says that Dr. Johnson was wrong to “fear that having a moral skeptic to tea would put the family silver at risk”,(26) and goes on to argue that we usually “have strong reasons to act in “prosocial” ways”, quite independently of our moral beliefs. He concludes that even though “moral beliefs have contributed substantially to keeping our prosocial motivations in line with our prosocial reasons, there is no reason to assume that alternative social and psychological mechanisms … could not..
There is little doubt that socialism, as both an ideological position and a program for practical action, is currently facing a major crisis. On the one hand those states that historically proclaimed themselves to be workers' socialist democracies eventually managed to condemn themselves, to their own people as well as to the rest of the world, through their centralized bureaucratic brutality and general economic inefficiency. On the other hand, the milder language and aspirations of social democracy has itself come under vigorous attack from the perspective of the now dominant neoliberal policy consensus. In many liberal democracies talk of the common good, of the value of redistributive economic and social policies, of the human individual as constitutively social, of the need for some control and direction over the operations of the market and the alleviation of its most unfortunate consequences—in short, the notions of social ownership and common responsibility that underpin our ideas of justice and welfare—has managed to acquire a disreputable and old-fashioned (not to say 'bleeding heart') reputation for woolly headed and counterproductive sentimentality.
Yet much is awry, and increasingly so, in the societies which have taken this message to heart. Communism might well be dead, but neoliberal democracy is certainly sick. It is in this context that the call for the revitalization of a genuinely socialist vision is particularly pertinent.
There has been some considerable effort expended in this direction, but much of it has produced less than satisfactory results. This is largely because too little, if any, time has been spent on recovering the moral heart of socialist aspirations and its meaning in our lives. In this essay we locate the essence of socialism in its formulae of social justice—from each according to ability, to each according to need. This conception of justice—socialist justice—is, we shall argue, presupposed by anything that deserves to be called a worthwhile form of human life. It is the constitutive morality of a social commons, and any genuine and sustainable community life presupposes just such social commons. By connecting socialist justice to the idea of the social commons we are able to clarify the meaning of the formula. In particular, we reject the (mistaken) reading sometimes attributed to Marx, and realized in our failed communist states, according to which each person is expected to give to the best of their abilities to some entity called 'society,' which entity in turn will hopefully ensure that the needs of all are met. Our interpretation of socialism refuses to reify society in this pernicious fashion. Society is not something over and above the particular people and relations that characterize the life of the community, it is simply these people and these relations. The importance of the social commons is that as an institution it both presupposes and constitutes a system of individual relationships in which people find it worthwhile to exploit their abilities without the fear of some external body appropriating the benefits of such effort for its own purposes. At the same time it ensures that this activity itself, in a non-accidental and direct way, provides the means necessary for the needs of all to be met in this area of life.
Our initial approach to the question of socialism may appear unusual in not beginning with one of the common Marxist or neo-Marxist verities—'class struggle,' 'dialectical materialism,' 'alienation,' 'exploitation' or 'surplus value'—but with what we take to be more fundamental: a consideration of our environmental situation.1 We will suggest that the kinds of solutions appropriate for dealing with the problems of environmental degradation are quintessentially socialist in character. By this we do not just mean that they have 'socialist' characteristics, but that properly understood—which is to say, as problems that demand a social commons solution—they provide a model for forms of organization which sustain the motivational conditions of socialist justice.
The Tragedy of the Commons
Ironically enough, the idea of the commons first comes to light in environmentalism in what is effectively a particularly 'right wing' and passionate plea for the extension of private property rights, Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons.3 In this seminal article for the modern environmental movement Hardin suggests that the real solution to our environmental problems involves an extension of private property rights. Rather than championing the idea of the environmental commons, Hardin argues that it is precisely our treating environmental resources as common resources that leads us into our difficulties.
His argument can be briefly stated: our environmental difficulties arise from our taking certain resources and goods as 'commons' or 'common resources,' on which all may draw without the limitations imposed by prior property rights. In economic literature these areas of unrestricted access to goods are called open commons: they lie outside the moral community of regulated property, and if there is any law it is the strategic directive to get there first and grab as much as possible. The example Hardin focuses on as a paradigm of this relentlessly individual logic of freedom in an open commons bringing 'ruin to all' is the medieval example of a common area of grazing land.
Hardin suggests that if we imagine such a common grazing area, then we imagine the conditions of eventual disaster. The logic is deceptively simple and is as follows: each herdsman finds it in his own interests to maximize his returns from the commons, and so in his own interests to maximize the number of beasts he grazes on the commons. For each beast the individual adds he receives virtually all the benefit, while the cost to the commons, on the other hand, is borne equally by all herdsman, and so borne very little by the person adding a further beast to his herd. At the same time, it is in no herdsman's interest to do anything to maintain or increase the fertility of the commons since such benefits would accrue to all, rather than just to the individual involved. And so the tragedy—for it is in each individuals' interest to add a further beast to his herd on the commons, and to do nothing to maintain its fertility, though the eventual result of this individually rational behavior is collective disaster as the commons collapses from over-grazing.
Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase their herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest ... Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.4
This 'relentless' logic, Hardin argues, characterizes our environmental problems generally. Water and air pollution, the degradation of previously pristine or fertile areas, excessive human fertility, the loss of many natural resources, among others, are all problems of unrestricted freedom in the commons. And the solution, quite clearly, involves dealing with that freedom—either by reforming human nature so that this realm of freedom becomes instead enmeshed in the moral world of a genuine community, or by implementing an overarching institutional regime that controls and directs the operations of individual choice and decision.
Hardin rejects the first path. Reforming human nature so as to avert the tragedy of the commons involves appealing to and developing the individ¬ual's moral concern for the well-being of the community. But this, Hardin argues, is hopeless.
If we ask a man who is exploiting the commons to desist 'in the name of conscience,' what are we saying to him? What does he hear?—not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but all the non¬verbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two com¬munications: (i) (intended communication) 'If you don't do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen'; (ii) (the unintended communication) 'If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.'5
The assumption behind Hardin's dismissal of the moral force of community-centered concerns as a force inviting, and depending on, stupidity, is that individuals have an ultimately irreversible commitment to furthering their private economic interests, even if it is at the expense of their community's well-being. To ask, in such circumstances, for morality to override a person's 'natural freedom' to pursue their 'own interest' is to try `to get something for nothing,' but even (even especially) here, one must pay for one's lunch.6
If that payment cannot be made by a moral revision of human nature, it can be made, Hardin argues, via institutional reforms. We must implement 'definite social arrangements' of the kind conspicuously absent in open commons. For those resources and goods that can be neatly slotted home to an individual owner, he suggests a private property regime. Individual ownership of a resource gives people the kind of control over, and interest in, the condition of the resource lacking in the open commons. If an individual herdsman wishes to add an extra beast to his herd, then as well as obtaining any potential benefit, he also incurs the full costs of the move, equally he obtains the full benefit of increases in the fertility of his land. For those resources and goods that cannot be slotted home in any meaningful fashion to an individual owner—the air and water, etc.—Hardin suggests a regime of strict environmental administrative law. As a matter of 'mutual coercion, mutually agreed,' the state is to act as custodian of these resources, strictly enforcing environmentally sound policies and practices.
Hardin's argument has played a central role in forming modern environmental politics and theory, but clearly it is vulnerable in a number of areas.7 On the most obvious level, it is possible to criticize the probable efficacy of Hardin's proposed solutions to the open commons problem. On a deeper level it is possible to question the legitimacy of the assumptions, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, which structure Hardin's mechanism of catastrophe. As we shall see, the first criticism leads inevitably to the second.
To begin with, let us take up Hardin's argument on his own terms. If we think of our environmental problems as problems of open commons in a competitive economic environment—and the prospect is that as a consequence our 'life-function' is headed for a disastrous failure—is the answer the institution of private property rights and, where that is not possible, the extension of centrally directed administrative law?
Clearly privatization per se is not the answer. If we are concerned with the way the pursuit of relative individual advantage leads to reckless resource exploitation, then a system of private ownership does nothing to solve the problem, particularly when wealth can be accumulated in non-physical ways. It makes perfect sense to ruthlessly exploit any privately-owned resource, even to the point of its destruction, if the short-term profits gained are sufficient to allow profitable investment in other areas. The only viable method of avoiding disaster, as a consequence, would seem to involve making ownership of resource property inalienable and to place strict restrictions on the opportunities for outside reinvestment of any profits it might generate, as well as somehow engendering in owners an overriding concern for the well-being of their descendants and the long-term prosperity and viability of the community in which they live. But equally clearly the kind of people who could be caught up in a tragedy of the commons are not likely to favor inalienable property rights and reinvestment restrictions, and nor are they likely to be deeply worried about communal well-being or that of posterity. They will not be worried, and will not be inclined to act otherwise, because, ex hypothesi, they do not have (or do not count it as morally significant, if they do have) a sense of being subject to a common danger, but think rather of personal danger, and by doing so obliterate both their common problems, and any chance they might have for commonly fashioned solutions. These people lack a sense of moral community, and that is why both their economic self-interest and their sense of moral dignity end up licensing a right to engage in activities and institutions that might lead us all into irrevocable harm.
Indeed here is a point at which Hardin's argument is simply wrong, for the medieval grazing and agricultural commons did not vanish because they were subject to Hardin's tragedy, which was thoughtfully rectified by the Enclosure Movement.8 On the contrary, St Thomas More's poignant remark on the state of England—'Sheep are eating men'—is an early reflection on the displacement and deprivation of the rural masses attributable to early enclosures. The commons were not destroyed by the internal dynamics of individual self-interest operating in conditions of scarcity, as Hardin would have it, but by the application of a variety of external economic and political forces. They had, in fact, persisted as fertile and important areas for centuries and, in many parts of the world, they still do.9 The great irony in Hardin's selection of examples is that, considered historically, the real story of the village commons he refers to is not one of degradation, but of long-term and effective environmental management. This is precisely because they were not treated as 'open' commons but as 'communal' or 'social' commons, and their use regulated by an extended system of rights and duties, upheld by tradition as well as law.
The real tragedy of the commons came about through the increasing power of wealthy landowners who, through their social and economic position, were increasingly able to circumvent such rights and duties, treating these areas as open commons to be enclosed for purely personal benefit. And this did not only involve the physical act of enclosure; it was accompanied by, and depended upon, the development and enforcement of a new, and particularly liberal, conception of property rights. Instead of property rights forming and reflecting the relationships of mutual reliance and dependence, which constitute the medieval community, now they slot home to the individual as a formally defined legal 'owner', with the consequence that the traditional realms of common ownership now appear to be open commons in the sense that they are open to the exploitation of private capital, and open to the ex nihilo creation of (further) private property for those strong enough to claim and hold it.10
Think again of the way the tragedy is supposed to arise. It depends on each herdsman being able to add to his own profit alone, whilst sharing the costs with others. But that means that the herdsmen must have confidence in their individual possession of their own flock. Unless there is security of flock ownership, then one can hardly be thought of as engaged in the rational activity of herd increase. Indeed, without presupposing a communally recognized property regime of private herd ownership, there is no space for the system of competitive practices that motivates the tragedy.
If this is right then Hardin's problem is not one of unrestricted access per se, but of such access against the background of an already existing and essentially liberal private property regime. The real puzzle Hardin inadvertently broaches is why the moral community underpinning the existing system of property rights is not able to realize itself in a more communally informed way of approaching the management of the relevant commons. Why must the relevant resource be treated as a moral no-man's land in which the individual's moral dignity may find expression in ways that relentlessly push all to destruction? The question is especially intractable when we realize that the liberal system of property rights underpinning the tragedy is not something an individual can create or sustain alone, but rather depends on a moral community in which people (and reciprocally), are determined to respect the property rights of their fellows. Hardin is blind to it, but his tragedy presupposes just this kind of community. Indeed, the problems he has with allowing for the existence of morality at all, reflect his unwillingness to extend the sense of community exhibited in a flourishing liberal economy, so that it can deal in an equally communitarian way with different, and often more complex, kinds of problems.
Hardin's world enables individual economic competition, but it does so only on the basis of an underlying moral and political commons. Certain virtues of participation in economic life are already implied in this picture, over and above a simple concern for personal profit. Thus, a private property and commercial regime of a sort that generates the logic of the tragedy of the open commons presupposes a system of reliable expectations concerning the sanctity of contract and ownership, standards of commercial probity and accuracy, a respect for the procedures and standards of arbitration and decision-making brought into play when disputes and disagreements arise between parties to a commercial or financial agreement, or a property dispute, and so on. These virtues, while they are virtues for the individual to pursue, themselves depend upon the existence of a wider moral community sustained by the willingness of people to take more into account than purely private concerns. It is this willingness to be part of, and contribute to, a certain moral community—for that is what liberal economics embodies and requires—which distinguishes Hardin's herdsman from Hobbes's brutes in the state of nature. The latter are bereft of any form of moral community, being unified only in their mutual terror and aggression, and hence unable, ultimately, to exploit any kind of social contract, however necessary such may appear to the benevolence of the outside theorist. But, if Hardin is willing to relegate us to the status of Hobbesian brutes (or idiots) in regard to communally oriented morality, he presumes an inherent virtue in our regard for private ownership. Why this is not an equal idiocy is not clear.
If privatization will not do what Hardin thinks it will, if, indeed, it is the liberal conception of private property which encourages us to recklessly exploit the open commons to disaster, and which if extended, itself merely delays the evil day, then the only strategy that might seem to remain is that of an extension of administrative law in the interests of managing our impact on the environment so as to avoid disaster. The trouble here is that Hardin’s denial of any foundational moral community (including that presupposed by his own story) makes it difficult to see how such a system of law would arise, and if it did, any reason to think it would generate widespread motivational commitment rather than strategies of resistance, evasion and regulatory capture.
Locke, Rights & Community
This does not mean there is no plausible liberal solution to the tragedy – there is. It is that we can find in the father of liberalism, John Locke. This is because Locke, unlike Hardin, explicitly accepts that a liberal rights regime presupposes an underlying and already existing moral commons. The trouble with Locke’s solution is not here, it is, rather, that he is committed to an alienated conception that community. Rectifying this failing will lead us back to socialism. It will show us what sense there is in John Plamenatz's claim that 'the socialist who cares for freedom must [not] reject Locke's idea of it. For Locke's conception is essentially the same as his own.'11
Whilst Locke insists on the moral and political primacy of the individual's rights to life, liberty and property, he does not allow that these rights are to be taken simply as do libertarians, that is, as the possession of the individual alone, a matter of their irreducibly separate existence, so that, in Robert Nozick's language, it is the 'unpatterned' operation of individual rights that properly determines the shape of the community's moral universe.12 By speaking of 'unpatterned' justice, Nozick suggests that it is illegitimate for communal considerations to impinge on, or aim at otherwise constraining, an individual's complete freedom to exercise their rights as they see fit, short of engaging in force or fraud.13 In this Nozick expresses a view common to many modern liberals, who are equally inclined to try to ground rights entirely in the individual alone, independently of their sociality. And if one consequence of this is the unpatterned articulation of the moral universe at the expense of community well-being, another, equally pernicious consequence, is to encourage us to attach rights to others on essentially egocentric and divisive grounds. The latter point follows from the way Nozick's liberal rights attach to, and are concerned to defend and further, as he says, the separateness of people. Nozick's individuals exists as a moral community only in the asser¬tion and defense of their separated natures. In this world the exploited claiming their rights do not appeal to their place in the liberal community, and ask or demand that it be recognized, instead they assert their separate¬ness, their difference from others, and demand that it be accorded (what they consider to be) its due recognition. The liberal politics of this kind of separatism encourage the strident and divisive assertion of often merely rhetorically generated differences, coupled with a general indifference towards, or intolerance for, those others whose assertions of separateness seem to conflict with the demands of one's own sovereign and separate exis¬tence. (This kind of politics, it is worth noting, characterizes both the libertarian Right, and identitarian Left.)
The natural response to this conception of individual rights is to insist that it goes wrong in detaching individuals and their moral rights from their enfolding social world. Plamenatz is elegant on the point:
Man is not, and can never be, the unattached, the emancipated creature imagined by Locke; he is, as Rousseau and Hegel and others have insisted, essentially social; he comes to know himself for a man, acquiring the abilities and aspirations on which his sense of identity and purpose depends, only through intercourse with others. No matter how adventurous and self-reliant he is, the opportunities he looks for are
social opportunities. If he were not educated, if he had not absorbed a culture, he could not conceive of them. Society is not the external means to his satisfying his wants; it is the environment in which he acquires them and in which alone they have meaning.14
We have little to dispute with this, except that it involves a misreading of Locke's position (though not Nozick's), and a misreading that helps to obscure his, Plamenatz's, earlier claim concerning the convergence of socialism and liberalism on the nature and value of human freedom. By getting Locke right on the question of the individual and community, we bring to the fore the importance of social commons, and do so in a way that is not merely friendly towards, but absolutely depends on, a genuine individualism.
Plamenatz's mistake lies in his anachronistic reading of Locke, enabling him to slide entirely by the theological world-view, which so clearly structures the Two Treatises of Civil Government, as if it did not exist. He reads him, consequently, as a kind of early Nozick, but the very first page of Locke's first extract from the Second Treatise gives an entirely different conception of rights than those presented in Nozick's resolutely secular philosophy.
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign Master,..