Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Importance of Metaphysics in Ethics

In one of my classes this semester we are discussing how ethics relates to public decision making. So far we have covered several different ethical systems such as Kantian duty ethics, cosmopolitanism, and the democratic theory of ethics. We recently moved on to a much more contentious (at least in our classroom) theory; utilitarianism. Peter Singer, probably the most influential modern utilitarian, has written several books on ethical problems from a utilitarian perspective. The piece we read for our class came from his book Practical Ethics, where Singer offers a fairly basic conception of what a utilitarian ethic looks like.

For Singer, as for most utilitarians, ethics is not about following rules or deciphering an all-applicable moral code. Ethics is rather concerned with determining the situational solution for any given circumstance that maximizes good (pleasure) while minimizing bad (pain or suffering). As such, it is a consequentialist approach to ethics; it is not concerned with the means that is used, simply with the ends. There are no acts which are always wrong for all people in all situations, there are only actions. These actions can bring about a good or bad result, and therein lies the ethical nature of action.

The specific example we discussed in class had to do with animal rights. As a consequentialist, Singer is concerned with bringing about a state of affairs which maximize the interests of all those affected; one cannot favor oneself or one's group simply because they are more closely connected to the individual. One must take into account the interests of every individual affected by the decision or action. Issues of discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, and other differences are an often pointed to example of such an ethic. Most people would agree that to favor the interests of one group of people over another is arbitrary and unethical, and therefore we must consider everybody as equal.

The question to consider, then, becomes one of what quality or characteristic can we point to as accounting for the equality of every individual's interests. What do we all share in common that grounds this moral intuition that we all deserve the same consideration? Many philosophers argue that our rational nature, our ability to think abstractly and contemplate our own existence, our sentience, all of these qualities give us the rights of personhood. The problem with such an argument, Singer rightly points out, is that it cannot account for all of us. Why do the interests or benefit of the mentally handicapped person deserve the same consideration as the interests of anybody else if they do not share our rational nature? What accounts for their personhood?

Singer's response to this problem is to argue that by trying to make equality and ethics about personhood we have created an inherently unjust conception of ethics. Equality and ethics are not determined by personhood, but by the mere fact that the individual can experience pleasure and suffering. The suffering of the mentally handicapped is just as real as mine or yours, just as their pleasure is the same as ours. This shared capacity is what gives the utilitarian basis for ascribing equal consideration to all, regardless of capability.

Singer's next move is where his position becomes especially contentious. Because personhood and rationality is no longer the prerequisite for equal consideration, there is no ethical reason to assume that animal species are not entitled to the very same ethical consideration as a human being. In fact, Singer argues that animals, due to their ability to experience pleasure and pain, in fact are of equal moral worth as humans.

This conclusion, that animals deserve the same moral weight as humans, can be extremely problematic to those whose moral intuitions do not mesh with Singer's. This can be especially concerning for the Christian. If animals are equal to people, how ought we to understand Genesis chapter 1, where God pronounces that man is made "in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:26 ESV) Here it seems that God is telling us in no uncertain terms that we are in a different class than animal life. He made us in His image, and then put us in charge of every animal on the earth. If that is so, how do we respond to Singer's argument while still providing for equality between humans regardless of capability?

The solution is the importance of metaphysics in our ethical considerations. The potential metaphysical differences between humans and animals (such as the existence of the soul) could account for a difference in moral weight while still allowing for equal consideration among all humans. Humans, being made in God's image and possessing a soul, are to be given preference. This is not to say that animals have no moral or ethical value. Treating an animal with cruelty is still wrong. Conversations about animal abuse and abandonment, as well as problems involved with factory farming, are all still worth having.

Let me know what you think. This blog being new, I'm very interested in hearing your comments.

Note: I've put an interview with Peter Singer below this post. As a warning, some of the topics discussed are of a more adult nature, and all of Singer's positions are of a morally provocative nature. Do not watch unless you're ok with being outraged.

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