Peter Singer on freedom of religion

Peter Singer has written a piece in which he argues that your freedom of religion has not been violated unless the state enacts a law that effectively prohibits you from doing something which is required by your religion. Thus, if it bans killing animals for meat in a certain way prescribed by your religion, that is not actually a violation of your freedom of religion unless your religion makes eating of meat compulsory. If it doesn’t do that, you can comply with the law by not eating meat all!

This is especially neat if you have reasons for thinking that people shouldn’t be (say) eating meat in any event. If some people are driven to give up eating meat in order to comply, you might think that a good collateral outcome, or side benefit, from a law requiring that animals be killed only in a certain way.

To be fair to Singer, though, another example that he gives is public transport – something that he doubtless approves of. If public transport is regulated in a certain way, e.g. to ensure that there is no gender separation, this might mean that certain people cannot comply with both the law and the rules of their (perhaps misogynist) religion. However, Singer suggests, they can’t complain that their religious freedom is being violated unless their religion makes it compulsory for them to use public transport. If it doesn’t, they can comply with the law simply by not using public transport.

Unfortunately, this analysis won’t work. I discuss such an approach in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, where I conclude that it is not convincing. There’s much to say about this, but perhaps we don’t need to get too deeply into it in this post.

What if your government banned the singing of Christmas carols tomorrow (I owe this example to Graham Oppy, I think)? I doubt that any form of Christianity requires the singing of Christmas carols. So does that mean that Christians (or at least those for whom singing Christmas carols is a valued practice) have not had their freedom of religion impinged on? Surely it doesn’t mean that. We’d still worry that this law was motivated by some sort of animus against religion – specifically against Christianity – and we’d still want to know why the state has any role in enacting laws on that sort of ground.

I think that Singer’s argument is, in some ways, too harsh and in some ways not harsh enough. It is not harsh enough if a law bans some practice that actually is required by a religion, provided that the negative effect on the religion is not the purpose of the law, and is merely the result of a general law enacted on some kind of secular ground that is neutral about the truth and false and falsity of various religions – essentially, a law that would have been enacted whether this religion existed or not.

Thus, imagine that some religion actually requires human sacrifice. Nonetheless, the ordinary law of murder does not breach the freedom of religion of its adherents. The law would have existed whether this religion did or not, and it is not aimed at suppressing the religion or persecuting its followers. It has the obvious secular purpose of protecting people from harm. I submit that the practitioners of the religion cannot claim that they are being persecuted, or anything of the kind.

But what if a law bans certain practices that, although not compulsory, are highly valued in the traditions of the religion concerned? What if the law is not a neutral one of general application (like banning loud noises after 1 am) but one tailored to make life just that bit less convenient and enjoyable to adherents of the religion (again, imagine a ban on singing Christmas carols)? This looks like the state is overreaching – it is acting out of a sense of hostility toward a particular religion, not enacting a law that it would have enacted anyway whether the religion existed or not.

Thus the test relates to whether the religion is affected by a religiously-neutral, generally-applicable law (with some entirely worldly purpose, not a purpose such as deterring heresy). The test is not whether the banned practice is compulsory within the religion.

All that said, neutral, generally-applicable laws can turn out to be especially onerous for particular groups of people. This can happen for all sorts of reasons. One reason might be that a law has the practical effect of forbidding people from engaging in a religious practice of some kind.

On occasion, we might want to give exemptions from a law, and our reasons might take into account how important it is that this particular law obtains universal compliance. They might also take into account just how onerous the effect is on people who are especially affected. If we’re getting into this weighing exercise, it will, indeed, seem more important if the effect of the law is to ban something that is considered compulsory for, say, spiritual salvation than if it merely makes life less enjoyable and convenient. But even the latter can be given some weight, depending on the circumstances.

Note, though, that even if human sacrifice were considered compulsory by some group for spiritual salvation, we would not grant exemptions from the law relating to murder. The starting point is whether this is a neutral law of general application with a good secular purpose. If it is, it is not an attack on freedom of religion. It is only when we get to considering any exemptions from the law that we take into account just how much difficulty the law might create for certain groups, including religious groups.

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45 Comments.

  1. Does anyone here feel that Peter Singer is somewhat cybernetic? What he says is logical but it lacks the human touch possibly an aspergers type without a clear sense of how other people view things. If he was in charge soon everybody would be at each others throats but his prestige amongst the chattering classes gives them the permission that they need to harass Jews, Catholics and Muslims. He’s back in Australia. Let him turn his attention to budgie smugglers.

  2. I am not sure that your argument about banning Christmas Carols fits this discussion. Specifically, the idea of creating gender specific areas on a bus so that orthodox Jews can avoid contact with the opposite sex would not fit the banning of Carols argument. I believe that the bus accommodations are similar to Jim Crow laws in the south before the Civil Rights era. The argument was that if you didn’t want to sit in the back, you didn’t need to ride. Opening up the busses to all in an equal way makes sense. Restricting areas of the bus for one sex only is going backwards from a civil rights standpoint. Likewise, banning Carols doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of requiring health insurance that offers contraceptive coverage. If contraceptive coverage is against a religious belief, simply don’t use it for yourself. There are many medical procedures that I would not be interested in paying for if I could make the decisions but I am not allowed to tell smokers that they shouldn’t get cancer treatment because they brought it upon themselves. I seem to be more in Mr. Singer’s camp but I welcome your rebuttal.

  3. No cancer treatment for smokers.

    That’s cold. That’s really cold.

    How about no heart disease treatment for those who do not exercise and eat high cholesterol diets?

    How about no blood pressure treatment for those who eat too much salt?

    No skin cancer treatment for sun-bathers?

    No liver disease treatment for those who drink more than 3 units of alcohol daily?

    That would lower health insurance premiums for us healthy-living people.

    Hurray.

    Let’em die in pain. It’s their own doing.

  4. Joseph Auclair

    Perhaps violating someone’s religious freedom can be a good idea.

    Animal sacrifice OK with you? Well, how about human sacrifice? Or witch burning? Or killing your sister for not wearing her burqa on the bus?

    Nuts.

  5. “The starting point is whether this is a neutral law of general application with a good secular purpose. If it is, it is not an attack on freedom of religion.

    Just so.

    This is, I think, how all laws abutting civil liberties should be approached.

  6. Swallerstein,
    Interesting take on my suggestion but my point is that just because you don’t like paying for contraception doesn’t mean you get out of it, even if it is a religious position that you are arguing from. I currently pay for all the problems you list and I do not begrudge anyone who needs those treatments. I do feel sorry for them, that they let the manufactures of the products and the advertisers hook them into bad choices, but that is not my point either. We end up paying for things we are against on a regular basis. I pay taxes to the federal government and they spend it to kill people. If I formed a religion that was against killing, could I stop paying my taxes?

    My main question at this point is that I don’t understand Mr. Blackford’s argument against Mr. Singers position. Since this is a Philosophy blog, I was hoping someone could help me gain a better understanding. Perhaps you have some insite to the argument that Mr. Blackford has made? Anyone else out there who can help me understand?

  7. JM,

    Singer is said to be arguing that in order to be a violation of your religious rights, a law must wholly prevent you from satisfying a requirement of your religion.

    Blackford points out that this seems to fail because it is insensitive to laws that significantly impede you from satisfying a requirement of your religion without wholly preventing the same.

    The key is that if there is no secular justification for such laws, then they appear to be violating your rights.

    Singer’s position appears to be flawed precisely because it is blind to this.

  8. Perhaps an example will make this more intuitive:

    Suppose that I have a right to publicly voice my opinion on who I think should be elected President in the next election.

    Let’s say there are two possible candidates, Susan and Jane.

    If I want to publicly voice my approval of Susan, I need meet no special requirement.

    However, if I want to argue in favor of Jane, I must first fill out a tedious series of paperwork before I can publicly do so.

    On Singer’s account, since I still have a path open to supporting Jane, no infringement of my rights is taking place.

    However, it seems that Jane and her supporters are being unduly discriminated against. If such discrimination strikes you as a violation of their rights, then there is something wrong with how Singer is framing the issue.

  9. Asur,
    Thanks, this helps; I still have a question. In the case of the law to separate the sexes on the bus, since there is no secular reason for this law, but it is proposed to support the Orthodox Jewish religious ideal, would either Singer or Blackford argue for this law? I see this as the wrong way to go in light of our history here in the US. Thoughts?

  10. JM,

    I hope neither Singer nor Blackford would argue for that law.

    However, if we assume that everyone has a right to ride on the bus and then frame the issue as whether that right is being violated in your example, Singer’s position would say “No” because everyone can still ride the bus while Blackford’s position would seem to say “Yes” because there seems to be no secular reason for the differential treatment.

  11. Asur,
    Thank you. I have been able to listen to a logical argument and been persuaded by that argument. I now find myself in Blackford’s camp. I very much appreciate your examples and persistence. It has helped me.

  12. John:

    I misunderstood your position, although your wording above (12:55PM) might lead a lot of people to adopt my first reading of your comment.

    In any case, my apologies.

    In regards to your question about forming a religion which is against killing, there already are several (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.), but their official spokespeople tend to
    overlook that message when “we” are killing “them”.

    In general, in this conversation, I’m not sure if we are talking about what the law says or should say or what is right, independent of the law.

  13. swallerstein,
    Apology accepted but not necessary. I really thought I had stated myself in an unclear manner.

    As to the religions that are against killing… I am not familiar enough with Buddism to comment on it; and I am too familiar with the adherents of Christianity to accept that they are against killing.

    “Separation of Church and State” and our “Freedom of Religion” are open to many interpretations but I like Asur’s statement; “The key is that if there is no secular justification for such laws, then they appear to be violating your rights.” That was the sentence that helped me understand the difference between Singer’s and Blackford’s arguments.

    As to your question; “In general, in this conversation, I’m not sure if we are talking about what the law says or should say or what is right, independent of the law.” Much depends on who’s law we are talking about and who is making the interpretation. US Federal law? Jewish law? Biblical law? Shariah law? Lucky for me/us right now, we live in a country that guards against the tyranny of the majority. I hope we stay this way.

  14. Hello John:

    I’m from Chile.

    If I were to look at the question abstractly, I’d say that religions should have exactly the same benefits, rights and obligations as any other non-profit organizations.

  15. Swallerstien,

    I believe they do have those benefits, rights and obligations. Some of them just want more. Our Religious Right come to mind. Hope all is well in Chile.

  16. I don’t think that Singer argues for a particular law. Singer’s argument could be reconstructed as follows:

    All religions admit of two possible standpoints: vegetarianism and consuming meat. If all religions admit of two possible standpoints, religious people should opt for the standpoint that is better from a moral perspective. From a moral perspective vegetarianism is better than consuming meat. Therefore, religions people should opt for vegetarianism.

    This argument seems to be untouched by Russell Blackford’s reply.

  17. @dbH

    Reading the Singer article linked to in the piece above, it seems clear Singer is indeed talking about laws. His only reference to being vegetarian for ethical reasons is where he states that people who would not meat because it was not kosher or halal would be in the same position as Singer himself has been for forty years.

    As for the argument you give, if religions believed not eating meat was more ethical than eating meat, surely they’d at least recommend vegetarianism?

  18. michael reidy

    This goes to show the conceit of Singer, or his blankness if you wish, in that ignores the reason for the sacralizing of the slaughter of animals in the Jewish and Muslim traditions. Being Jewish himself he must know that the offering to God of the life of the animal is a way of subsuming the life of the animal to that of the human who requires it for nourishment. He would regard this attitude as beneath his consideration but unless you take it into account then the ritual is meaningless and your critique misses the point. In a fair consideration of what you disagree with, a full description of it is required. A complex society would be inoperable with this attitude.

  19. @CathyBy

    Dear Cathy, I agree, Singer talks about laws, of course. But it seems to me that his main argument is not for or against a particular law but against a common reply to such laws by religious people appealing to the notion of “religious freedom”. And the argument shows (among other things): at least religious freedom is not at issue here since there’s no religious commandment or rule which prescribes vegetarianism or meat-eating.

    As for the argument you give, if religions believed not eating meat was more ethical than eating meat, surely they’d at least recommend vegetarianism?”

    The argument doesn’t depend on the premise that religions believe that not eating meat is more ethical. The first premise just states that religions admit for both: being a vegetarian and being a meat-eater.

  20. I think he is just a little ignorant of the real reason why the government or states could theoretically ban some means of killing animals for meat (or ban killing animals entirely) and not be in violation of freedom of religion.

    It comes back to the action-belief dichotomy. The government cannot limit what you choose to believe but it can place limitations on your actions.

    Take for example the SCOTUS decision in Employment Division v Smith (1990. The Court ruled that the State of Oregon’s law banning peyote did not violate the free exercise clause of the 1st amendment because it was a neutral law of general applicability i.e. it targeted anyone and everyone who would use peyote for whatever reason.

    Therefore, if a State passed a law banning killing unless it could be demonstrated that genuine efforts had been made to minimize suffering that would not violate freedom of religion even if it incidentally affected Muslims and Jews far more than non-believer or other religious believers. The law is neutral on its face and of general application.

  21. michael reidy

    So dbH:
    If a law actively discriminated against any particular group in a country it would be ok because there is nothing preventing that group from going and living somewhere else. In other words go back where you came from if you’re of immigrant stock. If you are not prepare to be excluded from national life by discriminatory legislation.

  22. Hi dbH,

    Your example actually relies on Blackford’s reply.

    Look at your second premise. If all religions admit of the same two standpoints, then deciding between them cannot be a religious matter. It must be a secular matter.

    However, if they are decided between by a secular consideration, then the decision has been made in the way that Blackford argues it should be.

    This seems curious, yes?

    It’s because Blackford isn’t replying to the argument you give, but rather to a specific assumption Singer makes that is not included in your argument.

  23. Hi Michael,

    that misses the point. A law against killing animals seems to be no case of discrimination. A law against murder, for example, is no case of discrimination likewise, even if some particular group whose members love killing will feel discriminated by that law.

    Hi Asur,

    I think Blackford’s reply is flawed because he puts the singing of Christmas carols on a level with the painful killing of animals. I agree with Blackford, that a law against Christmas carols would not be “a religiously-neutral, generally-applicable law” (RN-law), but a law “tailored to make life just that bit less convenient and enjoyable to adherents of the religion” (R-law) and so violate religious freedom. But I do not agree that Singer’s argument says that R-laws are legitimate in any way. And I do not agree that (as Blackford suggests) a law that “bans killing animals for meat in a certain way” would be an instance of a R-law. There is (so to speak) a higher moral rule which demands to avoid unnessecary pain. And “[p]ain is pain, no matter what the species of the being feeling it.” Given that moral premise (which Singer, of course, endorses), such a law would be a RN-law.

    It’s because Blackford isn’t replying to the argument you give, but rather to a specific assumption Singer makes that is not included in your argument.

    That’s right. But as I argued above I think his argument is flawed and he misses the point of Singer’s argument. Singer doesn’t offer a general “test” for good or bad laws as Blackford seems suggests.

  24. dbH,

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Blackford misses the point of Singer’s argument; it seems completely legitimate to engage a specific part of an argument (such as a single assumption or premise) that strikes you as problematic. This is what I see Blackford’s piece as doing.

    I’ve done the same thing many times, often to arguments I otherwise agree with on the whole.

    This is something of a minor issue for me, though; what I’m really interested in is the thesis you’re advancing regarding the moral status of pain.

    As I see it, the thesis has two parts:

    1) Unnecessary pain should be avoided.

    2) Who or what is feeling pain doesn’t matter, only that pain is being felt.

    Part (1) makes perfect sense to me and I agree with it. Part (2), however, seems somewhat strange to me.

    I’m not convinced that (2) is wrong yet, but I can’t think of a good argument for accepting it.

    Would you mind discussing why you endorse it?

  25. Dear Asur

    “dbH, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Blackford misses the point of Singer’s argument; it seems completely legitimate to engage a specific part of an argument (such as a single assumption or premise) that strikes you as problematic.”

    Ok, perhaps I expressed myself not very clear. I think you’re absolutely right here. My point was: (a) Blackford compares apples and oranges, (b) even if Blackford would be correct about Singers assumptions concerning laws this would have no consequences for Singer’s main argument that I tried (perhaps improperly) to reconstruct.

    “what I’m really interested in is the thesis you’re advancing regarding the moral status of pain. As I see it, the thesis has two parts: 1) Unnecessary pain should be avoided. 2) Who or what is feeling pain doesn’t matter, only that pain is being felt. Part (1) makes perfect sense to me and I agree with it. Part (2), however, seems somewhat strange to me. I’m not convinced that (2) is wrong yet, but I can’t think of a good argument for accepting it. Would you mind discussing why you endorse it?”

    (2) is a thesis endorsed by Singer, a thesis against what Singer calls “speciesism”. His argument is (very briefly): Given that, from an ethical point of view, you should consider not only your own interests but the interests of other beings (especially their interest in avoiding pain) – what reasons can be given to consider only the interests of your own (human) species? Singer maintains that there are no such reasons. In Singer’s own words: “There is no nonreligious reason why the pains and pleasures of nonhuman animals should not be given equal weight with the similar pains and pleasures of human beings.” The entire argument is given in “Practical Ethics”, Chapter 1 and 2.

  26. What about a purely secular, instrumental argument like so:

    1) All else being equal, between any two things the more useful should be preferred.

    2) On balance, humans are more useful to other humans than are any other animal.

    3) Therefore, all else being equal, human interests should be preferred over those of any other animal.

  27. @dbh

    I think Blackford’s reply is flawed because he puts the singing of Christmas carols on a level with the painful killing of animals.
    I don’t think he does. Singer suggests that a law which bans something which is not essential to a religion is not discriminatory. The Christmas carol example shows that such a law is discriminatory. It’s not meant to shine a light on the painful killing of animals at all.

    I agree with Blackford, that a law against Christmas carols would not be “a religiously-neutral, generally-applicable law” (RN-law), but a law “tailored to make life just that bit less convenient and enjoyable to adherents of the religion” (R-law) and so violate religious freedom. But I do not agree that Singer’s argument says that R-laws are legitimate in any way.
    But Singer’s argument does not leave us a way to discriminate between R-laws and RN-laws. For example, a workplace may insist that a cross is not worn by an employee. From Singer’s point of view, since wearing a cross on a chain is not obligatory to Christians, that prohibition is sound. Blackford would distinguish between the case where all jewellery is forbidden (RN-law) and one where any ornament on a chain except a cross is permitted (R-law).

    And I do not agree that (as Blackford suggests) a law that “bans killing animals for meat in a certain way” would be an instance of a R-law. There is (so to speak) a higher moral rule which demands to avoid unnessecary pain. And “[p]ain is pain, no matter what the species of the being feeling it.” Given that moral premise (which Singer, of course, endorses), such a law would be a RN-law.
    In the piece above Blackford does not say that killing of animals without stunning is a R-law, or at least not to my reading. Can you clarify where this is said or implied?

    That’s right. But as I argued above I think his argument is flawed and he misses the point of Singer’s argument. Singer doesn’t offer a general “test” for good or bad laws as Blackford seems suggests.
    No, but Singer is suggesting a general position to decide on whether a particular law discriminates against a religion or not. Again, my reading of the piece above suggests that is what Blackford thinks he is doing too.

  28. Try comparing another freedom. How’s about freedom of movement? Following Singer, your freedom of movement has not been violated unless the state passes a law which prevents you making a journey you are required to make. If it’s just because you would like to go somewhere for a walk, then you can always do something else or go somewhere else.

  29. “What about a purely secular, instrumental argument like so:
    1) All else being equal, between any two things the more useful should be preferred.
    2) On balance, humans are more useful to other humans than are any other animal.
    3) Therefore, all else being equal, human interests should be preferred over those of any other animal.”

    The second premise is not necessarily valid. Is a severely handicapped newborn more useful to other humans than a healthy cow for example?

    I think its about treating like interests with like.

    Animals that can suffer pain have the same interest in not being intentionally subjected to suffering. Therefore, we have a duty not to intentionally subject them to suffering in the same way as we have a duty not to intentionally subject a person to suffering.

    In terms of freedom of religion, if I must slowly bleed out another person as part of a ritual would this supersede my general duty not to intentionally subject them to suffering?

    If we say no the religious duty does not supersede then why do we would it in the case of an animal whose interest in not being intentionally subjected to suffering is the same as ours?

    We need to distinguish the animal from the person with reference to being intentionally subjected to suffering. If a valid distinction cannot be produced we must either accept that my religious duty allows me to ignore my duty not to intentionally subject another person to suffering too or that I cannot intentionally subject either people or animals to suffering.

  30. Sorry I meant like interests alike.

  31. Dan,

    Re your objection to (2), by “on balance” I mean something like “all things considered.”

    The premise relies on the general rule being true, not on the absence of specific exceptions–which I agree with you that your example is.

    Hence, I’m not trying to rule out the possibility that there are contexts in which a non-human animal would seem to have priority.

    My point is just that, all else being equal, human interests should have priority over the interests of other animals.

    You say that, “Animals that can suffer pain have the same interest in not being intentionally subjected to suffering. Therefore, we have a duty not to intentionally subject them to suffering in the same way as we have a duty not to intentionally subject a person to suffering.”

    I disagree that the second step of this follows.

    The first premise seems to establish that such animals have the same interest relative to other animals of their kind that humans have relative to other humans.

    If, however, you take it to mean that every animal has that same interest relative to every other animal, then it seems you are either assuming what you are trying to prove or not attempting to offer an argument.

  32. Just to be clear, the premise I asked dbH and now you to defend is something like this:

    All else being equal, the interests of non-human animals are equivalent to the interests of humans.

    This is the only premise I don’t see a way to justify. If it were established, I would grant everything else you’ve said as following from it.

  33. Dear, Cathy

    “Singer suggests that a law which bans something which is not essential to a religion is not discriminatory.”

    Singer surely would agree that such a law could be discriminatory, for example when the law is not supported by good (moral) reasons. In the case of Christmas carols there are no such reasons, so the law would be discriminatory.

    “But Singer’s argument does not leave us a way to discriminate between R-laws and RN-laws. For example, a workplace may insist that a cross is not worn by an employee. From Singer’s point of view, since wearing a cross on a chain is not obligatory to Christians, that prohibition is sound.”

    Again: From what Singer says it only follows that such a prohibition would be ok if it can be morally justified.

    “In the piece above Blackford does not say that killing of animals without stunning is a R-law, or at least not to my reading. Can you clarify where this is said or implied?”

    You’re right, perhaps I misunderstood Blackford here.

    “No, but Singer is suggesting a general position to decide on whether a particular law discriminates against a religion or not.”

    I don’t think he does, as I argued above. He is just proposing some conditions for laws that do not violate religious freedom: (a) being morally justified and (b) being compatible with essential religious commandments or rules. In the case of vegetarianism both conditions are satisfied, in the case of Christmas carols they are not satisfied.

  34. @ Asur:
    “The premise relies on the general rule being true, not on the absence of specific exceptions–which I agree with you that your example is.
    Hence, I’m not trying to rule out the possibility that there are contexts in which a non-human animal would seem to have priority.”

    I understand and I am addressing what appears to be a fundamental defect in that reasoning. The rule does not derive so much from intrinsic usefulness of the human being in question but rather relies on other members of its own species which happen to be more “useful”.

    It is no basis for a “general rule” when it entails exceptions for those that only fit within this rule based on species association. To be absolutely blunt this is nothing more than dressing up species bias.

    “I disagree that the second step of this follows.
    The first premise seems to establish that such animals have the same interest relative to other animals of their kind that humans have relative to other humans.”

    No it merely asserts that animals that CAN feel pain and therefore suffer that pain like humans can have the same interest in not being intentionally subjected to such suffering (pain).

    I am only dealing with the suffering of that pain so I apologise if there was confusion over how narrow or wide the suffering covered is.

    “If, however, you take it to mean that every animal has that same interest relative to every other animal, then it seems you are either assuming what you are trying to prove or not attempting to offer an argument.”

    I clearly stated “Animals that can suffer pain” not “all animals can suffer pain”. It has been scientifically proven that a lobster can feel pain.

    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/03/27/crab-lobster-pain.html

  35. Dan,

    “It is no basis for a “general rule” when it entails exceptions for those that only fit within this rule based on species association. To be absolutely blunt this is nothing more than dressing up species bias.”

    The species association is accidental. To be species bias, the association would have to be necessary, which I would join you in roundly denying.

    “No it merely asserts that animals that CAN feel pain and therefore suffer that pain like humans can have the same interest in not being intentionally subjected to such suffering (pain).”

    Right, I understood that you meant that. Nor do I think that animals are incapable of feeling pain–hopefully, that view died out with Malebranche.

    What I’m responding to is your idea that because they can feel pain, therefore they have the same interest in not being subject to pain.

    When you say “the same interest”, it seems you can mean one of two things:

    1) If you mean the same interest relative to humans, such that the obligation a human might have not to cause unnecessary suffering to another human would also extend to not causing unnecessary suffering to a non-human…then you are assuming what you are trying to prove; the argument is either circular, or not an argument but an opinion.

    2) If you mean the same interest relative to other animals of the same species, then we agree with each other and disagree with Singer.

    I took you to mean (1).

  36. Maybe this will clear things up.

    What I see you as advancing is a kind of symmetry thesis:

    1) As a rule, suffering should be avoided whenever possible.

    2) Humans can feel pain and suffer.

    3) Therefore, we should avoid causing humans pain and suffering whenever possible.

    4) Non-human animals can feel pain and suffer.

    5) Therefore, we should avoid causing non-human animals pain and suffering whenever possible.

    This is the argument I take you to be making, and I agree that it seems quite plausible. In fact, if I accepted (1) simpliciter, I would be in complete agreement with you.

    It strikes me, however, that every rule or law has both a letter and a spirit. The spirit, if you will, is why the rule or law exists. The letter is the linguistic expression we have in front of us.

    Sometimes the letter exactly expresses the spirit, sometimes it does not.

    If, in the case of (1), the letter does exactly express the spirit, then you are right and I should agree with you.

    The trouble is that I’m not entirely sure what spirit (1) expresses; I’m not entirely sure why (1) is a rule or law.

    (1) has strong intuitive appeal, certainly. So much so that it’s almost shameful to question it.

    But, we cannot be sure that (5) does indeed follow from (1) unless we can answer why (1) is a rule. It might be the case that it’s spirit implies (3) but not (5).

    It’s that why that I’m trying to sort out.

  37. “The species association is accidental. To be species bias, the association would have to be necessary, which I would join you in roundly denying.”

    If your position is that greater moral consideration of interests is derived from intrinsic usefulness then we could not deny such moral consideration to an animal which is intrinsically as useful or more useful than a human being we are willing to extend such moral consideration to. Unless there is a valid distinction of course.

    If on the other hand your position is that greater moral consideration of interests is derived from the usefulness of a species in sum total then even if I concede that this may not be an argument influenced by species bias it is a morally irrelevant distinction because certain members of a species have usefulness and interests in not suffering pain, not the species itself.

    However, I would prefer to give you the opportunity to clarify your position before I take this point any further.

    “What I’m responding to is your idea that because they can feel pain, therefore they have the same interest in not being subject to pain.
    When you say “the same interest”, it seems you can mean one of two things:
    1) If you mean the same interest relative to humans, such that the obligation a human might have not to cause unnecessary suffering to another human would also extend to not causing unnecessary suffering to a non-human…then you are assuming what you are trying to prove; the argument is either circular, or not an argument but an opinion.”

    You’re correct, that is essentially what I am asserting.

    However, my argument is based on consistency of applying a standard or rule unless there is a valid distinction that can justify not doing so. I guess my error was treating it as axiomatic that causing pain should be avoided whenever possible.

    Therefore, it seems from your post quoted below that you contest the premise which, if accepted, would make intentionally subjecting a human to suffering wrong.

    “The trouble is that I’m not entirely sure what spirit (1) expresses; I’m not entirely sure why (1) is a rule or law.
    (1) has strong intuitive appeal, certainly. So much so that it’s almost shameful to question it.
    But, we cannot be sure that (5) does indeed follow from (1) unless we can answer why (1) is a rule. It might be the case that it’s spirit implies (3) but not (5).
    It’s that why that I’m trying to sort out.”

    So yes you question whether it is axiomatic that suffering should be avoided wherever possible rather than whether (5) follows from (1) right? Or do you contest that also?

    Unfortunately this argument may boil down to where the burden of proof or justification lies.

    It is not necessary to provide affirmative justification for a human or non-human animal experiencing freedom from pain, where it does not burden someone to actively induce such a state.

    Therefore, the burden of justification for subjecting a human or non-human animal to such pain lies on those who would wish to do so. In the absence of such a justification, causing pain should be avoided where possible.

  38. Btw Asur, I have to ask, if you do dispute the position that the interest in not being intentionally subjected to pain derives from the capacity to feel pain then are we free to intentionally subject a human person suffering in the same way as animals? If not, why not?

  39. Dan,

    I enjoyed reading your reply. Thank you.

    “If your position is that greater moral consideration of interests is derived from intrinsic usefulness then we could not deny such moral consideration to an animal which is intrinsically as useful or more useful than a human being we are willing to extend such moral consideration to. Unless there is a valid distinction of course.”

    I agree with this completely.

    Using your terminology, I would say that greater moral consideration of interests is derived from the intrinsic usefulness of the individual or individuals we are considering.

    I accept that whether they are human or non-human is irrelevant.

    Barring particular contexts, I take it that the average human has more intrinsic usefulness to another human than does the average non-human. This is the source of my earlier general claim and why I didn’t feel that specific exceptions were either surprising or significant–they would have to be frequent enough to make the general claim false on average.

    “So yes you question whether it is axiomatic that suffering should be avoided wherever possible rather than whether (5) follows from (1) right? Or do you contest that also?”

    Just the first; if it is axiomatic, then I admit that (5) does follow from (1).

    It seems meaningful to ask why causing unnecessary suffering is wrong. I see a few primary replies to this:

    1) It could be a brute fact, in which case there is no ‘why’, it just is.

    2) It could be purely a social convention, where we take being a social convention to justify it.

    3) It could be derived from a consequentialist analysis.

    I think (3) is what’s actually going on; (1) and (2) seem open to strong counterexamples.

    If it’s not axiomatic but rather a consequentialist conclusion, then the question is what consequences relative to whom.

    As to the ‘what’ question, I tried to capture that with “usefulness”. This is, admittedly, vague, but the best I could do without extended analysis.

    The ‘whom’ question I think is filled in by whatever entity is doing the moral deliberation; in this case, us.

    Let’s take the example of a suffering farm animal. On my analysis, this is wrong not in an axiomatic, Kantian sense, but only if some significant consequence obtains from that animal suffering beyond the mere fact that it is suffering.

    This is, admittedly, a distasteful thing to say, but my distaste in saying it is due to the social conventions I am embedded in; I can’t seem to justify the sentiment through any line of substantial reasoning, however I try.

  40. Dan,

    You ask, “Btw Asur, I have to ask, if you do dispute the position that the interest in not being intentionally subjected to pain derives from the capacity to feel pain then are we free to intentionally subject a human person suffering in the same way as animals? If not, why not?

    You are if there is a net benefit to doing so.

    The question this raises is, a net benefit to whom?

    The natural reply seems to be, “to the individual agent”.

    However, perhaps something like “to the community to which the individual agent belongs” is better.

    This last becomes particularly interesting if you don’t see a reason to exclude non-humans from being part of a human community.

    I’m not sure which view is correct, or if a hybrid account incorporating each is better.

  41. Sorry for the late reply, been a bit busy.

    “Barring particular contexts, I take it that the average human has more intrinsic usefulness to another human than does the average non-human. This is the source of my earlier general claim and why I didn’t feel that specific exceptions were either surprising or significant–they would have to be frequent enough to make the general claim false on average.”

    I do not dispute that generally humans are more intrinsically useful than animals. However, are we in agreement that it is individual capacities that are morally relevant rather than an aggregate of the species?

    “It seems meaningful to ask why causing unnecessary suffering is wrong. I see a few primary replies to this:
    1) It could be a brute fact, in which case there is no ‘why’, it just is.
    2) It could be purely a social convention, where we take being a social convention to justify it.
    3) It could be derived from a consequentialist analysis.
    I think (3) is what’s actually going on; (1) and (2) seem open to strong counterexamples.
    If it’s not axiomatic but rather a consequentialist conclusion, then the question is what consequences relative to whom.”

    Well my position is not strictly consequentialist because it is the state of mind of the moral agent that is fundamentally the basis for culpability i.e. it matters more why we proceeded to act in a certain way rather than the specific outcome our actions produce.

    Just as an illustration; if someone rapes a woman who is unconscious and will never discover that she was a victim of rape is it “no harm, no foul”? It is our failure to give adequate consideration to that person’s interest in bodily integrity that makes the rapist culpable even if she never finds out.

    Likewise, in the case of animal suffering, it is the failure to give adequate consideration to that entity’s interest in not being subjected to such pain that makes the conduct wrongful.

    In summary I do not think we should get the benefit of good consequences that we never intended to begin with. More importantly, if we failed to give adequate consideration to these interests in the first place we are culpable.

    “As to the ‘what’ question, I tried to capture that with “usefulness”. This is, admittedly, vague, but the best I could do without extended analysis.
    The ‘whom’ question I think is filled in by whatever entity is doing the moral deliberation; in this case, us.
    Let’s take the example of a suffering farm animal. On my analysis, this is wrong not in an axiomatic, Kantian sense, but only if some significant consequence obtains from that animal suffering beyond the mere fact that it is suffering.
    This is, admittedly, a distasteful thing to say, but my distaste in saying it is due to the social conventions I am embedded in; I can’t seem to justify the sentiment through any line of substantial reasoning, however I try.”

    I agree that our intuitions are sometimes just mistaken. For example I have absolutely no moral objection to cannibalism even though I personally find it distasteful and offensive.

    However, in this case I do not find it possible to escape the fact that many animals have an interest in not being subjected to pain and therefore when we intend that and fail to give adequate consideration to that interest we are culpable.

  42. “You are if there is a net benefit to doing so.
    The question this raises is, a net benefit to whom?
    The natural reply seems to be, “to the individual agent”.
    However, perhaps something like “to the community to which the individual agent belongs” is better.
    This last becomes particularly interesting if you don’t see a reason to exclude non-humans from being part of a human community.
    I’m not sure which view is correct, or if a hybrid account incorporating each is better.”

    I do see the attraction of using a utilitarian/consequentialist analysis but the problem is human beings are not gifted with perfect knowledge of all the possible outcomes of our actions. We rely a lot on luck and this is not a rational basis on which culpability (or lack thereof) should be based.

    Just as an illustration, let’s say two police officers torture a suspect in order to try to obtain information of a terrorist attack. One police officer gets some information and saves thousands of lives and the other gets no information because the suspect turns out to be innocent.

    Arguably, from a utilitarian/consequentialist perspective the first police officer is not culpable because his actions resulted in a greater net benefit for society. On the other hand the second police officer is culpable because his actions resulted in a net loss for society or at least for the innocent suspect.

    To base culpability on luck is not moral at all. Either both are culpable due to their state of mind or neither were culpable. There is no moral difference in their conduct, only the outcome.

  43. Btw Asur I have also enjoyed reading your responses, they are very insightful and well thought out. Thank you :-)

  44. I don’t know if it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else encountering issues with your site.
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