Animal Projects

eight_belles_breakdown1There’s a picture of an animal’s life that’s just about standard, and even favored by many animal advocates: an animal’s life is all choppy. Your dog lives moment to moment, without the moments being connected together into “wholes.” By contrast, there is lots of connection in the life of a human being. This difference (people assume) has relevance to the value of animal lives, the badness of animal deaths, and the ethics of killing.

To wit: this sort of contrast is made especially starkly in Jeff McMahan’s book The Ethics of Killing. He has a rich notion of the “wholes” that matter in the lives of people. For one, there’s the whole formed when you anticipate a later time and wish it to be a certain way–you want to lie on the beach in Hawaii in three months. All signs are that animals don’t have thoughts like that. But that’s not the only sort of continuity that counts.

McMahan attaches importance to the “complex narrative unity” of a life (or parts of a life). That unity can be tragically ruined by death. The bride dies right before the wedding, the student is killed in a car accident on the way to graduation, the author doesn’t get to see her book posthumously published. He writes–

As an animal continues to live, goods may continue to accumulate in sequence, but the effect is merely additive. There is no scope for tragedy–for hopes passing unrealized, projects unwillingly aborted, mistakes or misunderstandings left uncorrected, or apologies left unmade.

But surely the lives of animals are full of premature endings. For example, last year Eight Belles collapsed moments after coming in second at the Kentucky Derby, because of two broken ankles. That broke off a story before it was over. Are we really to think that a horse that races madly to a finish line is not engaged in a “project,” that no project has been “aborted” if the horse falls to the ground?

I have the feeling we spend too much time around denatured pets and farm animals to realize that animal lives don’t just consist of a series of moments. Beavers work for months to build dams. Rutting season doesn’t end as it’s supposed to if the animals are shot by hunters before there’s any mating. Emperor penguins spend weeks trudging back from the sea to feed their young–an effort that ends badly if the chicks have died in the meantime.

I know what some people are going to say. The animals don’t think about the future–Eight Belles wasn’t looking forward to her victory lap; the deer aren’t thinking about copulating; the penguins don’t desire a reunion with their young. But narrative unity is supposed to be a further factor affecting the significance of a death, one that goes beyond the issue whether death prevents desires from being fulfilled. In the human case, it does not seem true that an incomplete project is only tragic to the extent that the agent had a particular set of desires and thoughts. All that adds to the tragedy, but isn’t all there is to it.

Thinking of an animal’s life as a series of discrete moments makes its death matter less, and so makes it easier for us to kill with a clear conscience. We need to think about the lives of animals without so much eagerness to find the sharpest possible differences.

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33 Comments.

  1. Grendels Dad

    Does McMahan address any of our closer cousins in the animal sense? I thought I remembered reading of chimps that would select and carry two different types of sticks to be used as tools later for termite harvesting. One as a club to open the hard outer mound, and one long, slender, flexible stick to insert into tunnels and retrieve termites.

  2. I don’t think McMahan is the world’s worst downgrader of animals. In fact, he’s a pretty respectable animal-advocate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was quite happy to acknowledge tool use and other animal feats.

    What he does want to show is that animals have a moment-to-moment sort of life…which makes their deaths matter less (for many reasons). I can go along with saying their lives are more moment-to-moment than ours, but I think he’s exaggerating the difference.

  3. Completely off topic, but I read your comment on Letier’s poll, Jean, and Aristotle is currently winning. I voted for Plato and left out Aristotle, putting Socrates in 2nd place, then Epicurus, so that Aristotle will accumulate less votes. All Plato fans, please vote early and vote often.

  4. Ooh, strategic voting. I wonder if that respects the spirit of the thing.

  5. Jean: Strategic voting isn’t cheating. It’s politics. Aristole probably got more things right than Plato did, but Plato is a greater thinker and as you say, a talented writer, while reading Aristotle is like reading the code of laws. What’s more, Plato attracts young people to philosophy, while reading Aristotle at age 15 is likely to turn most kids off. My first philosophy book was The Republic at age 15 or 16, and I bet that is true for many kids.

  6. Hmm. I don’t see the goal of the poll as anything but satisfying curiosity–i.e. curiosity about what people think (cumulatively). But each person who takes it certainly can do whatever they want.

  7. It was the moment to moment idea I was questioning. The chimps were selecting their tools over the course of several hours of traveling to the termite mounds. They seemed to be connected to their future selves of at least a few hours into the future. Maybe we are all living moment to moment, it’s just some of us are more temporally endowed in the moment department

  8. michael reidy

    Animals don’t foresee their death or pray for a happy death or anything of that sort. Slaughter should be humane without panic or fear. That’s just good management. Making mere killing of animals a moral issue is implicitly condemning a lot of good people. It’s not a crime or a misdemeanour just food. Are you trying to make an overarching point out of what is a minor claim viz.humans make plans and so it’s bad when they die. So do animals you assert without heeding the distinction between instinctual routines and conscious goals.

  9. Completely off topic: I would like to see all the illustrations for JK’s blogs to be assembled in a folder among the links. They have been an extraordinary collection. Good stuff as well as entertaining.

  10. rtk, How kind of you. Yeah, you can’t scroll through old posts and old pictures with this new design. But a link to all pictures isn’t technically possible.

    Grendel’s Dad, Ah…now I get it. I don’t think McMahan has done justice to animal psychology. Yes, there’s some evidence that they consciously anticipate the future. I hadn’t read about chimps selecting tools before traveling to termite mounds (cool). There’s some experimental evidence of the very same thing. In a lab setting, chimps will take the right key from one room to another to open a food box, even if they won’t get to open it for many hours.

    Michael, This post isn’t really about planning, it’s about how death can leave things incomplete. To wit–the wedding day without a wedding night, etc. My point is simply that death can do that in animal lives as well. Eight Belles comes in second, but doesn’t get the victory lap. A bird spends months migrating to the arctic, but gets shot by a hunter on the way.

    I don’t think the incompleteness McMahan is talking about pertains only to non-instinctive or fully conscious parts of human lives–so animals are not out of the running. For example, part of the tragedy of a young person dying (we think) is that they never have certain adult experiences (eg sex). That seems tragic, even if sex is instinctive, and the child didn’t even have a concept of it.

    As to how we shouldn’t make killing animals a moral issue, for fear of condemning lots of people–er, 1/3 of Americans owned slaves before the civil war. How inconsiderate of the abolitionists to say such bad things about them!

  11. It’s only from the point of view of the spectator that death leaves things incomplete. The dead person or animal has no point of view. The best reason for not killing animals is not whether or not their death leaves things incomplete, but the empathy or compassion that one feels for them. That’s also the best reason for not killing people too and that’s the very reason why killing unseen people 2000 kilometers away with a missile is a lot easier for non-psychopaths (and easier to accept for spectators, those who read about it in the media) than cutting someone’s throat with a knife.

  12. My argument is really hypothetical or more precisely, “ad hominem” (in a technical sense). It is being made to someone like McMahan who does see part of death’s badness in the human case in terms of the way it interrupts, leaving things incomplete. Such people should see the same phenomenon in the animal world. It is not true that animal lives run moment to moment, and lack the sort of “narrative unity” McMahan is talking about.

    If I thought such people were mad, I guess I wouldn’t bother. But I don’t think they’re mad. Deaths do seem to vary in their badness, and the issue of completeness/ incompleteness does a rather nice job of explaining part of that. Definitely not all of it, but it’s one element.

  13. The more advanced mammals seem to live more than just moment to moment. For example, consider dogs. I’ve lived with dogs all my life and have had a chance to observe them extensively (and clean up after them). They seem to live more than moment to moment.

    One example is that my husky, Isis, will stockpile treats. She will eat one or two that I hand her but she will then keep coming back to get a few more. She’ll stack them on the couch, take a nap beside them and then eat them when she wakes up. She certainly seems to grasp the notion that a treat after her nap will be nice.

    Dogs (and other animals) also show clear anticipation for events. For example, when I get Isis’ leash, she becomes excited because she knows that this means she’ll be outside. When I have my running shoes on, she gets even more excited and leaps about-she is anticipating a run. Also, she has another set of behavior when I say “dog park.” This capacity to anticipate seems to show that dogs (or at least my brilliant husky) have a concept of what is to come.

    Also, when Isis has seen me getting ready to run but sees me going to the door without her leash, she grumpily flops on the couch-she clearly seems disappointed that she has been denied a run. While dogs lack our language skills and hence cannot create verbal or written narratives, they seem quite capable of anticipation and disappointment regarding future events.

    Dogs also seem to have good memories. For example, I’ve seen dogs recognize people they have not seen for a year. I’ve also seen dogs remember trails they have not walked on for over a year. Given this capacity for memory, dogs meet at least that basic requirement for grasping the past.

    So, if my husky can feel a loss at not going at a run she anticipated, then it seems reasonable to think that her death would interrupt a unified life and not just a series of unrelated moments.

    Naturally, a skeptic can present reasonable challenges to this. Unfortunately, dogs cannot speak in their own defense.

  14. There is something to Amos’s comment. We tend to think about the morality of killing things in terms of the value of the entity being killed. So then we develop all sorts of rules and ideas on the basis of the “what” we are killing, and when it is OK to do it. Certainly this is not a dead end avenue and there are some clear differences here that almost no one will dispute. No one thinks much of killing an individual ant, and human beings are in their own category (according to most humans).

    But there is an angle to take where the concern is not directly about killing some entity of whatever attributes, but about the state of mind one must be in to do this kind of killing, and the effects that killing has on the killer.

    Consider the analysis that surrounds the pilots that dropped the nukes on Japan in WW2. There is all sorts of stuff on how they “should” feel, that Tibbets was “insane” for not feeling guilty, that Eatherly was “driven mad” by the event, and so forth.

    I think most people would be entirely unable to kill their own meat for dinner, and yet they have no problem with other people (or machines) slaughtering animals by the many many thousands every day. So the ethics of killing have a dimension of “what it means to be a killer” that is not directly explored by evaluations of the killed, though certainly they are not in any way unrelated.

  15. By the way, the compassion or empathy that one feels for animals can be increased by information that makes animals seem “more human”, such as the information about his dog supplied by Mike above. So the idea that animals have a connection to the future in that it makes them seem more like us increases one’s ethical condemnation of seeing them suffer or of killing them, including so-called painless death. The so-called painless lethal injections used to kill prisoners turned out to be not so painless. However, many factors, besides just the fact that an animal may have a future, are part of one’s compassion and empathy towards animals.

  16. It seems to me that the point I was making above may be related to the point Mike was making in his post on emotion and ethics:

    One obvious distinction is the oft discussed letting die versus killing. In the first case, the agent has a role to play in who dies. However, the agent is not killing the children. Rather, s/he is deciding who the gas will kill. In the second case, if the agent does nothing, then s/he lets one person die. If she acts, then she kills a person. Since this distinction has been discussed in great length by other philosophers I will not go beyond saying that it is reasonable to take this to be a morally relevant distinction. Hence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that the cases are not identical-and hence that the logic is not identical. If this is the case, then the distinction in the positions need not be explained in terms of a gut reaction-it could be the result of a rational assessment of the moral distinction between killing and letting die.

    There is something about “becomming a killer” that has an ethical flavor of its own distinct from the killing actually done.

  17. I agree that there may be more conscious future-orientation in animals than we usually recognize (thank you, Mike–and by the way, that’s a fine picture), and so death can stop an animal from getting where it (he, she) was trying to go….

    …but I’m intrigued by the specific kind of interruption McCahan is talking about here. It’s the interruption of a process or project, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Episodes in our lives have “narrative unity” he says, which can be destroyed by death.

    Case in point–I just read a horrific story about a college student gunned down by a stalker just before graduation. Of the 1001 reasons why this is awful, some fraction of the reasons have to do with a story not being able to come to an end. She worked hard throughout college (was a philosophy major, even), and never got to the finish line.

    We think it’s bad when human projects get interrupted, regardless of whether the person was consciously anticipating the endpoint. For example, its sad for a child to not grow up and have adult experiences, even if he had no notion about those experiences.

    Why not recognize something similar in the lives of animals–projects and processes that get cut off before they’ve been completed? Why is it so critical whether the animal had the power to anticipate and plan the end of the project?

  18. Why not recognize something similar in the lives of animals–projects and processes that get cut off before they’ve been completed? Why is it so critical whether the animal had the power to anticipate and plan the end of the project?

    Well lets say it isn’t. In that case what is the difference between the process that every living body undergoes when it tries to complete its physical development, whether that is a simple as a bacterium “trying” to divide, or a fetus “trying” to complete its maturation, or a child’s body transforming into that of an adult VS the project of a beaver building a dam, or a whale migrating through the ocean, or a dog burying a bone.

    I assume that in the latter examples we detect or think we detect the power to anticipate and plan in some sense, that there is SOME sense of an awareness of time (and thus a beginning middle and end) and that is why we find such activities narratively interesting, while in the case of mere physical growth or developmental completion we do not think there is anything “mental” going on.

    Doesn’t all of this in some sense really all back to a valuation of the degree to which things are “mental” or “souls” as opposed to being “machines” or “mere physical organisms?”

    Or to put it another way, we may not think it enough that WE see the narrative unity in the “story” of an animal’s project, if THEY don’t have it in their “heads” in some way–the way we have our own stories “in our heads.” If we can’t convince ourselves of this we don’t think that it qualifies as valuable in and of itself. They just aren’t pour-soi enough to qualify for equal status. Mere physical development on the other hand we tend to think of as merely structure and function with no “mental content” whatsoever.

  19. Yes, that’s just what I’ve been thinking about. You don’t really want to say it’s bad to cut down a tree before it blossoms.

    I see two options here–

    Just bite the bullet. OK, it’s a little bit bad. Death for an animal (human or otherwise) is just bad in a whole lot more ways than death for a plant is bad.

    Or say something about how some sort of mentality has to be involved in a project/process, for it to be bad that it comes to an end prematurely. But maybe that mentality doesn’t have to be full-blow intellectual awareness of where the process is going, and desire for its “consummation.”

    Even in the human case, you don’t always have that sort of awareness. Hmm.

  20. michael reidy

    However part of the judgement whether a project was completed or not is assessed by the plan. ‘Targets set in the 5 year plan were not met’ etc. The plan for the race was to come in first if possible, the best laid plans of mice and men gang oft aglay’. A judgement of completion depends on what the plan was.

    The killing of animals for food in a humane way cannot really be a object of moral censure. What are the poor Inuit to do or those living in arid regions? The Besht (Bal Shem Tov) was a butcher, the Buddha eat meat and is said to said to have died from bad pork. A lot of good people eat meat. There is no raising of consciousness to be done on that topic. Not like slavery. Which brings me to the number of people who owned slaves in the U.S. According to the 1860 census 1.4% of the whole country owned slaves (individuals with title) and 4.8% in the South where 95% of the slaves were. This same source also has it that ¼ of the families in the South held slaves. Other stats are http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_United_States#Distribution_of_Slaves that 8% of American families held slaves. The 1/3 of Americans that you mention is perhaps due to confusion with the 4 million slaves for a total population of 12 million. The price of a slave could buy you a 500acre farm.

  21. I gave my statistic incorrectly–it is that 1/3 of people in the south, before the civil war, WERE slaves, not that 1/3 owned slaves. From Peter Kochin’s book American Slavery.

    Hey, who’s talking about censuring Inuit? Not me. The issue here is the weight to give to animal deaths. The standard view is–a tiny bit of weight. McMahan gives animal deaths more weight than that. I’m saying: more weight still. He’s underestimating the weight because he’s got a mistaken, moment-to-moment picture of their lives.

    But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. No real-life moral problem is going to get resolved simply by talking about the weight to give to an animal’s death. The specific reasons for killing an animal have to get added to the balance. Sometimes they are good enough, sometimes not.

    I defend the Inuit, by the way, in my book–there are many bits of the book about them. They had good reasons to kill animals, back when their survival depended on it.

  22. Jean: I also read about the woman killed by the stalker, and of all the things that horrified me in the story the fact that she did not graduate from college never even occurred to me. So, perhaps some people, you and MacMahan among others, see future-oriented consciousness, as very important and others, including myself, my life being a series of unfinished projects, studies included, and books that I never read to the last page, don’t see unfinished or interrumpted projects as any special tragedy. Many of us are more day to day type folks, so to speak.

  23. The NYT article talks about her “promise” in the very first sentence–

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/nyregion/08wesleyan.html?em

    It then goes on to say–

    At Wesleyan, where she enrolled in 2006, Ms. Justin-Jinich was described by friends as intellectual and passionate about her studies, pursuing a double major, one in Iberian studies and an interdisciplinary major in history, philosophy and literature. She quoted Nietzsche, Epicurus and Rousseau, and was a fan of the Chilean writer-politician Pablo Neruda and the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti Merello, they said. One friend said her summer plans included an internship in Washington with an organization focusing on women’s issues.

    “She had planned to pursue a life of helping people, which was true to her personality and character,” said Leah Lucid, a close friend who was to have roomed with her next semester.

    So I think the focus on unfinished projects was already there, in the article, not my imposition.

  24. Jean: First of all, I didn’t read the news in the New York Times. The fact that the NYT focuses on her plans indicates that you, MacMahan and the NYT find plans to be extremely important. I said at the beginning of the discussion of MacMahan that he has a cultural bias, one that the NYT probably shares also. I thought that we were searching for reasons for not killing animals which could be convincing to most or all rational human beings, not just reasons that will convince the reading public of the New York Times or intellectuals from Anglo-Saxon universities, who, for various reasons, tend to elect the New York Times as their newspaper of reference. That is, the New York Times frames a news story according to their specific cultural way of seeing the world, which is not necessarily mine.

  25. I don’t find it likely at all that it’s just some little elite group of snooty intellectuals who sees a tragedy of unfulfilled promise when a smart, idealistic girl, full of plans, gets murdered by a stalker. But in any event–when I mentioned this case above, I did take care to say that there are 1001 things that makes this death awful, and the way it left her “projects” incomplete was just an element of it.

  26. You make me sound heartless. I was shocked by the story. It was horrible. I read an earlier version in CNN, but here is how the updated version in CNN runs.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/05/08/connecticut.shooting.arrest/index.html

  27. I don’t think your heartless. I’m just defending my reading of it as an example of a death that’s especially tragic, because of…

    blah, blah, blah

    Honesly, I’m sure we both find it really awful, and not really for very different reasons.

  28. I keep thinking about the fact that McMahans perspective seems to contain ideas about time. But where does time exist in the instant to instant life of any given creature?

    If you take a human being and freeze them in time, as though in a photogrpah, where are their “plans?” At any given INSTANT how does the human differ from the ant? If we reject non material souls or any kind of dualism and include only physical phenomena, if we hold some kind of strong monist materialism, then it will actually be reflected in some kind of complexity of physical structure, this structure holds all memories, all “pictures” and “ideas” and “plans.”

    Is then the difference between a human and an ant that at the end of the day the human is just many orders of magnitutde more complex than the ant insofar as the neuronal patterns in its skull constitue in some sense an entire world?

    If this view has anything to it at all does this mean that what we value is simply complexity itself? We think nothing of killing a bug or bacterium. But to wipe out an ECOSYSTEM, that is something else entirely. An ecosystem is not intelligent in the same sense we are, but perhaps it has a systemic intelligence, and in any case it is enormously complex, almost irreducibly so.

    Perhaps there is a connection here.

  29. Jean: I’m sure that we agree on 98% of the reasons why that killing, and all killings of young women who are stalked by psychopaths, are horrible.

  30. Anyone who acts a cat’s staff(Dogs have owners, cats have staff) will disagree with the moment-to-moment bit …..
    The forward planning, even for a few seconds or a minute or two, displayed by cats can be quite impressive.
    It should be remebered that cats show quite a wide range of “Intelligence” – you really do get “thick” ones and bright ones.
    And how much of this is assembly of pre-imprinted programmes is also open to debate.
    One thing IS certain. If even domestic cats learn to co-operate (and a few do, occasionally) AND learn about levers – we’re screwed!

  31. i have the feeling we spend too much time around denatured pets and farm animals to realize that animal lives don’t just consist of a series of moments. Beavers work for months to build dams. Rutting season doesn’t end as it’s supposed to if the animals are shot by hunters before there’s any mating. Emperor penguins spend weeks trudging back from the sea to feed their young–an effort that ends badly if the chicks have died in the meantime.

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