Tag Archives: Organizations

My Research Philosophy

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Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.

Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.

That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

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Philosophical Provocations Vol. 1

In a shameless attempt to get money so I can buy luxuries like food, I’ve assembled, edited and organized my finest posts into Philosophical Provocations Volume 1 (A Fistful of Provocations). Naturally, you can read all the originals here, for free-once again showing that philosophers are not always very good at this capitalism thing.

The United States Kindle version is my usual book price of 99 cents and the UK version is the equivalent in fish & chips.

Of course, your money is probably  much better spent on Jeremy Stangroom’s and James Garvey’s The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought 

 

 

 

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Pro-Life, Pro-Environment

Human fetus, age unknown

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Here in the States we are going through the seemingly endless warm up for our 2012 presidential election. President Obama is the candidate of the Democrats and the Republicans are trying to sort out who will be their person.  The Republican candidates for being the presidential candidate are doing their best to win the hearts and minds of the folks who will anoint one of them.

In order to do this, a candidate must win over the folks who are focused on economic matters (mainly pushing for low taxes and less regulation) and those who are focused on what they regard as moral issues (pushing against abortion, same sex marriage and so on). The need to appeal to these views has caused most of the candidates to adopt the pro-life (anti-abortion) stance as well as to express a commitment to eliminating regulation. Some of the candidates have gone so far as to claim they will eliminate the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on the grounds that regulations hurt the job creators.

On the face of it, these seems to be no tension between being pro-life and against government regulation of the sort imposed via the EPA.  A person could argue that since abortion is wrong, it is acceptable for the government to deny women the freedom to have abortions. The same person could, quite consistently it seems, then argue that the state should take a pro-choice stance towards business in terms of regulation, especially environmental regulation. However, if one digs a bit deeper, it would seem that there is a potential tension here.

In the States, the stock pro-life argument is that the act of abortion is an act of murder: innocent people are being killed. There are, of course, variations on this line of reasoning. However, the usual moral arguments are based on the notion that harm is being done to an innocent being.  When people counter with an appeal to the rights or needs of the mother, the stock reply is that these are overridden in this situation. That is, avoiding harm to the fetus (or pre-fetus) is generally more important than avoiding harm to the mother. In some cases people take this to be an absolute in that they regard abortion as never allowable. Some do allow exceptions in the case of medical necessity, rape or incest.  There are, of course, also religious arguments-but those are best discussed in another context.

If this line of reasoning is taken seriously, and I think that it should, then a person who is pro-life on these grounds would seem to be committed to extending this moral concern for life beyond the womb. Unless, of course, there is a moral change that occurs after birth that create a relevant difference that removes the need for moral concern. This, however, would seem unlikely (at least in this direction, namely from being a entity worthy of moral concern to being an entity who does not matter).

It is at this point that the matter of environmental concerns can be brought into play. Shortly before writing this I was reading an article about the environmental dangers children are exposed to, primarily in schools. These hazards include the usual suspects: lead, mercury, pesticides, arsenic, air pollution, mold, asbestos, radon, BPA, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other such things.

Currently, children are regularly exposed to a witches brew of human made chemicals and substances that have been well established as being harmful to human beings and especially harmful to children. They are also exposed to naturally occurring substances by the actions of human beings. For example, burning coal and oil release naturally occurring mercury into the air. As another example, people use naturally occurring lead and asbestos in construction. As noted above, it is well established that these substances are harmful to humans and especially harmful to children.

If someone hold the pro-life position and believes that abortion should be regulated by the state because of the harm being done, then it would thus seem to follow that they would also need to be committed to the regulation of harmful chemicals and substances, even those produced and created by businesses. After all, if the principle that warrants regulating abortion is based on the harm being done to the fetus/pre-fetus, then the same line of reasoning would also extend to the harm being done to children and adults.

If someone were to counter by saying that they are only morally concerned with the fetus/pre-fetus, then the obvious reply is that these entities are even more impacted by exposure to such chemicals and substances. As such, they would also seem to committed to accepting regulation of the environment on the same grounds that they argue for regulation of the womb.

It might be countered that these substances generally do not kill the fetus/pre-fetus or children  but rather cause defects. As such, a person could be against killing (and hence anti-abortion) but also be against regulation on the grounds that they find birth defects, retarded development and so on to be acceptable. That is, killing is not acceptable but maiming and crippling are tolerable.

This would, interestingly enough, be a potentially viable position. However, it does seem somewhat problematic for a person to be morally outraged at abortion while being willing to tolerate maiming and crippling.

It might also be argued that businesses should be freed from regulation on the utilitarian grounds that the jobs and profits created will outweigh the environmental harms being done. That is, in return for X jobs and Y profits, we can morally tolerate Z levels of contamination, pollution, birth defects, illness and so on. This is, of course, a viable option.

However, if this approach is acceptable for regulating the environment, then it would seem to also be acceptable for regulating the womb. That is, if a utilitarian approach is taken to the environment, then the same would seem to also be suitable for abortion. It would seem that if we can morally tolerate the harms resulting from a lack of regulation of the environment, then we could also tolerate the harms resulting from abortion.

Thus it would seem that a person who is pro-life and favors regulating the womb the grounds that abortion harms the innocent, then that person should also be for regulating the environment on the grounds that pollution and contamination also harm the innocent.

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Women, Aggression & Philosophy

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Philosophers at work.

While the majority of undergraduate students in America are women, philosophy departments are still predominantly composed of men. Not surprisingly, both male and female philosophers have addressed this matter and various explanations have been offered as to why this is the case. There have also been numerous learned treatises written about how to remedy this apparently problematic situation.

While the entire topic is well worth addressing, my goal in this essay is far more modest. I will address only the rather limited subject of women and aggression in philosophy.

If my memory serves, my first exposure to this matter was in my undergraduate days in a class on feminism. As a graduate student and in my professional career, this matter was (and is) brought to my attention fairly often, generally by female colleagues in the field.  This sort of aggression was, of course, cast as an evil of philosophy and a causal factor in pushing women away from philosophy. The general idea is as follows.

Certain practices in academic philosophy are rife with aggressive behavior. Since we are talking about philosophers, this behavior is generally not physical. Rather, the aggression tends to be social and intellectual. To use a commonly cited example, paper presentations are sometimes cast as struggles between the presenter and the audience. The presenter tries to come across as smart as possible, while members of the audience launch attacks calculated to bring the presenter down a peg and to lift themselves up in the intellectual hierarchy. While this might seem to be something of an exaggeration, it does match my own experience. It is also, of course, consistent with Hobbes discussion of how the learned behave in the presence of each other.

While not all men enjoy this sort of adversarial method, it is ofter claimed that men find it far more appealing than women. This seems to be correct and is consistent with the stock gender stereotypes. As far as the cause, one can present the usual suspects: socialization and genetics. Whatever the cause, there does seem to be a significant difference between how men and women react to such situations, at least in general terms.

Given that these sort of interactions are part of being a professional philosopher, it makes sense that women would the field less appealing and hence this is a plausible causal factor as to there being fewer women than men in philosophy.

This does not, however, automatically entail that this behavior should be changed so as to make philosophy more appealing to women.

To use an obvious analogy, combat oriented video games and aggressive sports are far less appealing to females than males. However, to assume that this is somehow a defect in the games or sports would be a rather hasty conclusion. It would also be rather hasty to infer that such games and sports should (in the moral sense of the term) be changed so as to appeal to females. After all, there are plenty of other games and sports that females can play. So, for example, if many women do not find Halo: Reach enjoyable, they can always playPortal 2 or (God forbid) Farmville. Likewise, if many women do not find the practice of philosophy appealing, they can seek alternatives.

An obvious, and correct, reply is that while combat games and contact sports are inherently aggressive, it is not obvious that philosophy must be aggressive. There is also the obvious point that while women can play a wealth of alternative sports and games, to simply tell women that they have to play philosophy the “male way” or hit the intellectual highway seems to be rather unwarranted.

That said, it could be argued that the  aggressive nature of this sort of philosophical behavior might be an important (or even essential) aspect of the philosophical method. If so, it would be unreasonable to expect the practice of philosophy to change so as to make it appeal to women. Going back to the games and sports analogy, it would seem unreasonable to demand that video games and sports be changed so that they will appeal to women and allow women to compete with men in all cases (such as in American football).

While it is tempting to see philosophy as requiring an aggressive clash of ideas, this does not seem to be essential to the practice of philosophy. To use the obvious example, while Socrates was quite willing to engage with the likes of Meletus and Ion, the Socratic method is more of a cooperative endeavor rather than an inherently acrimonious or hostile one. It is, of course, also possible to have a lively, spirited and even competitive exchange of ideas without it devolving into a situation that is needlessly aggressive.

This sort of approach would, I think, make the practice of professional philosophy more appealing-and not just to women.

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The Useful & The Useless

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A stock criticism of philosophy is that it is useless. This, of course, has a certain appeal. After all, philosophy does not seem to do anything obviously useful like baking bread, killing people, selling beer, or curing cancer.

One stock reply to this charge is that while philosophy might not be useful, it is still valuable. Value, one might argue, is not merely a matter of usefulness. While this has a certain appeal to it, it also seems to be a bit of a surrender. As such, I will avoid taking this approach.

Another stock reply is that the definition of “useful” that is limited to such things as baking, building and killing is far too narrow. Under a broader (and superior, a philosopher might say)definition, philosopher would be found to be eminently useful.

While this might strike some as a mere semantic trick of the sort beloved by philosophers, it does seem to be a legitimate approach under certain conditions. Obviously, if a philosopher employs an ad hoc definition to “prove” that philosophy is useful, then this would hardly do. Equally obviously, if the philosopher’s critic simply insisted on excluding philosophy from the realm of the useful by fiat, then this would also hardly do. What is needed, obviously enough, is an account of the useful and the useless that does not beg any questions. Providing such an account would be rather challenging. After all, philosophers will want to slide the definition so that philosophy is useful and those who disagree will wish to narrow the definition so that philosophy is excluded. Any compromise might be regarded as unthinkable-a selling out of one’s position to the enemy. However, a rational discussion over this matter has to begin with a willingness on both sides to at least consider the possibility of yielding some ground in the face of cogent arguments.

Since this is but a brief blog post, I will not endeavor to settle this matter or even make much progress. Instead, I will just engage is some sketching in regards to the useful.

While people often say that something is useful, it seems unlikely that usefulness is a intrinsic property of anything. Rather, when someone says that X is useful, they mean that X is useful (or useless) for Y (where Y is a person or some purpose). For example, running long distances is useful for people training for a marathon. However, it would seem rather useless for people training to design web pages.

On this view, usefulness would seem to be relative to the person or purpose. Thus, usefulness would be (to steal from Kant) hypothetical  rather than categorical.

In this case, philosophy would obviously be useful to many (if not all) professional philosophers. After all, it provides the basis of their employment and gives them something to do. This makes philosophy as useful as a large range of activities and professions that provide employment and activity.  It would also be useful to those who publish, purchase or read philosophy books (and other material). It would also be useful to the students who get credit hours towards graduation. This usefulness could, obviously enough, be extended quite far. For example, comedians who make fun of philosophy and people who enjoy arguing that philosophy is useless would actually find it useful in that it gives them a target.

This view also would entail that things that some see as paradigms of usefulness could also be useless. For example, someone who elected to live “off the grid” could regard a field such as electrical engineering as useless in that it would be useless to him in his chosen way of life.

I suspect, however, that critics of philosophy would not accept this line of thought. This sort of usefulness/uselessness  seems to be far too broad in that almost anything could be useful  or useless simply because someone finds it useful or useless in some manner. To add a few more lines to the sketch, the critic of philosophy no doubt wants the usefulness to be far more robust. Philosophers, I should think, would also want something more robust than this.

This then turns away from considering useful in terms of “useful for who?” and to the other path, namely “useful for what(purpose)?” This would seem to move a bit beyond the subjectivism of “useful for who?” and to a certain relativity, namely usefulness relative to a purpose.

On this sort of view, the usefulness of X would be defined in terms of what sort of purposes X can advance. In the example above, long distance running would be useful for training for longer races (10Ks and up, perhaps).  As another example, running instances as DPS in WoW and observing other players tanking would be useful for learning how to tank. Of course, some might regard playing a video game to learn how to play it better as not being very useful. Likewise, even if philosophy is useful for certain things (like giving philosophers a job) it might be seen as not useful.

Of course, it cannot be taken as being “not useful” in the strict sense. After all, philosophy does have many uses (as noted above). Rather, when the critic says that philosophy is useless, she most likely is making a normative judgment about the value of the uses of philosophy. To say that philosophy is useless thus seems  to say that the uses of philosophy are without value.

Of course, this raises the matter of determining value. As with usefulness, value seems to often be subjective  to the person doing the assessment or relative to the purpose at hand. Then again, perhaps there is some sort of intrinsic value that can be used to ultimately distinguish the truly useful from the truly useless.

This has, obviously enough, been a mere sketch of some of the debate and I do not claim to have settled anything at all. However, I think that progress has been made in that some of the terrain has been mapped out and some vague goals have been set.

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Useful?

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As a philosopher I am often asked about the usefulness of philosophy. At this point, I have a set template for my reply. I begin by presenting the historical contributions of philosophers in areas such as logic, ethics, political theory and the sciences. I then note some of the trees that have grown from these philosophical seeds, such as computers, the web, notions of human rights, and various political systems. I usually close by discussing what philosophy can do for people today, such as improving their reasoning skill. I then close by noting the continued importance of philosophical discussions in such vital areas as ethics and politics.

Yet, oddly enough, some people are still not satisfied and insist that philosophy is useless. While this might be merely an attempt to start and continue an amusing fight, perhaps there is something substantial to this sort of insistence. Perhaps there is actually a meaningful dispute over what it is to be useful. As such, I invite the reader to propose some accounts of “useful” as well as provide some examples of what sort of disciplines and things would be useful. For bonus points, compare philosophy to these paradigm cases and show how it matches up or fails to do so.

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The Nature of Cruelty

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The notion of cruelty seems to be an important concept in both law and morality. Not surprisingly, what acts count as cruels is a matter of significant debate. My intent here is not to focus on sorting out specific actions or developing a cruelometer. Rather, I am going to address a slightly more abstract issue: whether cruelty requires the capacity to suffer on the part of the victim.

Intuitively, for an action to be cruel, the victim of the action must be capable of suffering. With due apologies to Steve Martin, while there can (perhaps) be cruel shoes, one cannot be cruel to shoes. This, of course, excludes sentient shoes such as Philip K. Dick’s brown oxford.

If this intuition is correct, it would follow that cruelty would be impossible in cases involving beings that cannot suffer from the action in question.

While this intuition holds for inanimate objects such as rocks and shoes, it weakens in the case of living creatures, even when such creatures cannot suffer. For example, the human fetus is not supposed to be able to suffer from pain prior to a certain number of weeks of development. However, it would not seem irrational to speak of such a fetus being subject to cruelty. It would also not seem foolish to speak about certain acts done to brain dead or even dead humans as being acts of cruelty. As a final example, even if certain animals could not suffer (suppose, for example, that Descartes had been right) it would still seem appealing to regard some acts as being cruel to them.

One way to cash out these intuitions would be by asserting that although the actions would not be truly cruel, we regard them as cruel because 1) such acts against a being that could suffer would be cruel and 2) the beings in question (the fetus, the brain dead human, and the animals) are enough like creatures that can suffer.

One way to present a moral argument against such “pseudo cruel” acts is to use Kant’s argument regarding animals:  if a person acts in cruel ways towards such entities then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, such actions would be wrong. This would not be because the victim was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the person damaging his humanity through such an action.

Since the argument is based on the psychological effects of the action on the actor, acts against beings that 1) lack the relevant moral status and 2) do not create the psychological effect in question when subject to “cruel” acts would not be wrong and also presumably not cruel. This nicely matches our intuition that one cannot be cruel to rocks.

So, an act can be considered cruel if the being in question can suffer or if the action can affect a normal actor in a way comparable to an act of “true” cruelty (that is, make her more inclined to cruelty).

Of course, this discussion cannot be properly finished without bringing up a strange and perhaps irrelevant  imaginary scenario:

Imagine a future scientist, Sally, has a mean sister, Jane, who is very cruel to her husband, Andy. Sadly, Jane is a crime boss and would see to it that Andy would be gutted and then cloned if he ever left her. Being a sensitive genius, Sally builds an android duplicate of Andy (an Andydroid) to replace her sister’s husband and spare him from her cruelty. She then smuggles Andy off world so he can have a better life.

Being a moral person, Sally does not want Andydroid to suffer, so she makes him immune to pain and suffering. Naturally,  he has all the behavioral programming needed to satisfy Sally’s need to see Andy suffer. For example, if Jane flaunts her latest lover in front of Andrydroid and “his” friends, he will shed tears but will actually feel no emotional pain.

Sally is such a genius that Jane never notices the difference. She treats Andydroid the same as Andy, yet Andrydroid does not suffer from her actions at all.

So, are Jane’s acts against Andrydroid cruel acts or not? Bonus points for classic science fiction references, of course.

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Debating Meat IV: Kantian Kabobs

{{w|Immanuel Kant}}, Prussian philosopher.

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In part III of debating meat, I examined Descartes’ arguments as to why it is no crime to kill and eat animals. I now turn to a brief examination of Kant’s view of animals.

In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Given this view, it would seem that Kant would not be very concerned with how animals are treated. After all, they would seem to be mere things. Oddly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot  be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty-they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

While encouraging this good treatment, Kant does allow for some decidedly not-nice behavior. He uses the specific example of vivisectionists (those who studied living animals by dissecting them) and justifies their cruelty because animals are “man’s instruments.” In short, we should not be cruel to animals, unless doing so is to our advantage.

Kant does, however, place some limits on cruelty. While using animals for scientific purpose is justified, Kant claims that being cruel for sport cannot be morally justified. As such, Kant’s view would make certain forms of hunting unacceptable.

In the case of eating  meat, his theory would seem to allow it. After all, if cutting apart living animals for scientific purposes is acceptable, then killing a cow or pig for food would seem to be acceptable as well. However, given his remarks about cruelty for sport, Kant’s theory would probably cast certain ways of raising (and killing) meat animals as being unacceptable. After all, if cruelty for sport is out, presumably cruelty for culinary pleasures would also be out.  For example, veal would probably be out on the grounds that it is needlessly cruel.

Interestingly, Kant’s argument can be pushed to support vegetarianism. After all, if being cruel to animals makes us more likely to be cruel to humans, then treating animals as mere meat would seem to harden our hearts against living things. As such, it would seem that to better develop our human feelings we should forgo meat.

Of course, it can be argued that people can eat animals without suffering such a hardening of the heart (just hardening of the arteries). If so, then Kant’s view would allow the eating of meat.

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