How the Categorical Imperative Entails that we cannot Treat Animals as Means Only

It is often thought that utilitarianism is the only moral theory that recognizes that non-rational animals matter morally. This view is usually contrasted with some deontological view (typically Kant) that claims that animals in no way matter. But this is actually mistaken.

Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imerpative ‘Act on the maxim which you can will as a universal law of nature’ straightforwardly leads to his second formulation ‘act so as to treat the humanity in a person as an end only and never as a means only’. This is because I cannot consistently will a maxim that lets rational agents be treated as means only, as that would mean that I, a rational agent, could be treated as a means only which contradicts the natural desire of rational agents to govern themselves. Exactly parralell reasoning will get you another formulation of the categorical imperative which is something like ‘act so as to treat sentient creatures as an end only and never as a means only’; for consider a world in which sentient creatures were treated as a means only (used for food, hunted for pleasure, etc) in such a world it would be OK to treat you as a means to an end, (you are after all a sentient being), but this contradicts a sentient being’s natural desire not to be used in such ways.

Perhaps one may object that they could will a maxim which was limited to non-rational sentient beings. But then you have the usual problems with infants, the mentally infirm, and senile senior citizens. Perhaps we could limit it to non-human sentient beings? But this is to make an exception to a universal rule, which is the very indication that one is acting contrary to the Categorical Imperative!

Explaining Subjective Differences in Color Perception

Via Tanasije I found Michael Tye’s paper The Puzzle of True Blue where he considers the problem posed by the well known fact that people’s color discriminations vary widely from person to person. So you and I could both be looking at some particular color and I might think that it is true blue, not at all greenish while you might think that it is not true blue (a little bit greeninsh). Tye considers some standard answers to the puzzle before presenting his own. I will skip the standard ones and go straight to Tye’s.

 He suggests that the visual system evolved to respond to the general color categories and that the particular shade of the general color is unimportant and so a sort of ‘”guess” on the part of the visual system. But there is yet another alternative account. It may be the case that you and I have the same first order mental states of the determinate shade and different higher-order representations of that first-order state. The same sort of story could be told…In order to determine which is right we would have to present the colors to the subjects subliminally, record the brain activity, present the colors to the subject superliminally, record the brain activity and note the differences… 

Empirical Support for the Higher-Order Theory of Consciousness

I think that the Higher-Order theory of consciousness is a well worked out naturalistic theory of consciousness that has a decent shot at actually being true. This is not to say that I actually think it is true, or which version of it is, but it seems to me that it has the advantage over every other kind of theory out there. The best part about higher-order theories, though, is that they are worked out in enough detail so that we can begin to evalutate it for empirical adequacy. I have previously argued that there is empirical evidence that points in this way (On Hallucinating Pain, HOT Block, Swimming Vegetables? Fish, Pain, and Consciousness)

Via David Rosenthal my attention was brought to a recent NY Times article, Go Ahead, Rationalize. Monkeys Do It, Too where they discuss research that suggests that rationalizing ones choices is an unconscious, automatic process. The research on animals is fascinating, but perhaps the most convincing is the data on amnesiacs. These people showed the same rationalizing patterns as control subjects even though they did not remember choosing the object (which they now rated higher). This suggests that there are unconscious mental states at play in the amnesiac’s rationalization process. Furthermore, given that people tend to confabulate when asked why they made the rankings that they did this suggests that we are conscious of the process in a way that differs from the actual nature of the (then) unconscious mental state. How else could this be explained if not by a theory of consciousness that depends on the transitivity principle?

A Counter-Example to the Cogito?

Descartes famously argued that the one undoubtable truth is that when he is thinking he exists. This idea, I think therefore I am, is clear and distinct, which are the marks of self-evident necessary truths. Descartes’ idea still has a lot of pull, but isn’t there an obvious kind of counter-example to it?

Couldn’t it be the case that the Evil Demon has multiple personality disorder and that I (or you) am a figment of this fragmented consciousness? Couldn’t it be the case that the Evil Demon has made me up in the telling of some story to ease his boredom? Or maybe the Evil Demon is a Solipsist. In reality He is the only thing that exists and all of us are just a backdrop his all-powerful mind has concocted…It would then be the case that I wonder whether I exist and yet I do not exist…aren’t these kinds of things  counter-examples to the Cogito?

One response that might be made is that, while it is the case that I do not technically exist as I thought I did (as a mind-independent entity), I still exist (as a fictional mind-dependant entity). So, I still exist, just not in the way that I thought I did. This would allow us to keep the general truth that whenever there is some thinking there has to be a thinker (it would just be the Evil Demon himself who is actually doing the thinking), but it does seem to do violence to clearness and distinctness as a criterion of self-evident necessary truths.

Does anyone know if this kind of objection is ever dealt with by Descartes or any of his objectors/commentators?

Meta-metaethics and the NJRPA

I am getting ready to go to Jersey tomorrow to present Language, Thought, Logic, and Existence at the NJRPA which should be fun. If you haven’t listened to the virtual version why not check it out. It will almost be like being there!

 I am also working on comments for next weeks Yale/Uconn Graduate conference in Connecticut.  I will be commentating on a paper by Jeff Sebo (NYU) called ‘Two Normative Arguments for Metaethical Constructivism’ I will be arguing that Jeff has not given a normative argument for a metaethical conclusion. So I wanted to take this opportunity to jot down some thoughts about Meta-metaethics. What exactly is the point of metaethics and how is it different from normative ethics?

Metaethics is primarily concerned with questions about the meaning of ethical terms like ‘good,’ ‘evil,’ ‘ought,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘right,’ and the possibility of the justification of normative moral judgments like ‘suicide bombing is morally wrong,’ ‘Uday Hussein was an evil man,’ or ‘Humans ought not to eat meat’. Now, though we are concerned with the possibility of the justification of these normative judgments, we are not concerned with giving a theory that would tell us, or purport to, whether these judgments are actually correct. Metaethical inquiry is concerned only with the nature of the kind of answer that can be given, not the actual answers that are given.

So, for instance, Plato’s answer that there are eternal, perfect, and unchanging Forms of Justice and Courage tells us how a normative judgment could be true. It does not tell us which ones are. His account amounts to the claim the moral judgments are beliefs that are true or false in so far as they capture reality as it is in the Eternal Realm of the Forms, just like normal predicates work on his view. Telling us what objects do participate in these Forms is the job of normative ethics. In Plato’s case the normative theory takes the form of a virtue ethics based on his analogy between the parts of the soul and the parts of a city. While Plato’s normative theory has fallen out of favor, his metaethical theory remains quite popular, but I shall not dwell on this here. My point is that the proper task of metaethics lies in giving a general theory about the nature of moral judgments and the semantics of moral words that would explain how realism could be true, or is false, or whatever.

Given this account it may then seem that to add constructivism to the fray should be no problem. The constructivist thinks that there are moral properties, just like the Platonist, except that the moral properties are thought of as constructed by us rather than found out there in the world. This certainly seems to be the way that most constructivists take, and the one that Sebo takes in his paper. He characterizes constructivism as a hybrid metaethical and normative theory, whereas non-constructivism is a purely metaethical view that makes no normative claims or predictions.  So Sebo takes a metaethical theory to be the conjunction of a semantical claim, a metaphysical claim and an epistemological claim. A purely metaethical theory would only deal with these questions and since constructivism deals with these questions it is a distinctive metaethical theory, albeit one that makes a specific normative claim. This normative claim is that we should only do something if we have a reason to do it and we only have a reason to do something if we in fact value it. The constructivist thinks that trhe moral facts arise due to a distinctively human act of valueing. They are not ‘out there’ independantly of human beings. His argument is then that it is a mistake to think that finding out whether the normative claim is true or not has no bearing on metaethical disputes.

But when we actually look at what he says, this isn’t the case. His argument actually turns out to be an appeal to naturalism and intuitions about which theory is better to accept. He develops an analogy with the debate between evolution and intelligent design. The evolutionary theory makes all kinds of actual predictions whereas intelligent desing is neutral. If we then independantly verify the predictions that evolution makes then we should take this as evidence that evolutionary theory is true which is inconsistent with the theory of intellilgent design (we are here taking evolutionary theory to be the theory that life arouse due to random/chance physical events).

 He then goes on to argue as follows. Imagine that we find out that the normative claim that the constructivist makes is somehow shown to be true, that is imagine that we find out that we should only act a certain way if we have some subjective reason for acting that way. Then what we have is two theories, each of which can account for this fact, but one of which is committed to strange properties, or whatever, so the success of the normative story is indirect evidence for constructivism. But the problem with this argument is that it does not really rely on the normative claim that the constructivist makes, as that can be accepted by the non-constructivist. Besides which, the only other option is not Platonism. It may turn out to be the case that the moral properties are natural properties. So the normative argument fails. As it should. Metaethical theories are completely neutral as between normative theory.