Is Anything Of Significance Lost In Giving
Up The Essay, Research Paper
Throughout ‘On Certainty’, Wittgenstein’s aim is to remove thefalse pictures created by traditional philosophers, by uncoveringthe true way that our language functions in our lives, andshowing the irreconcilable difference between this and the waythat philosophers use language in different situations. WhileWittgenstein criticises the theories of traditional philosophers,he himself does not come up with an alternative theory, as it isthe theorising of philosophers that he sees as creating much ofthe false picture. At the base of all of Wittgenstein’s writing in ‘On Certainty’is the notion of language games. According to Wittgenstein, allthat we say only gets any meaning when seen in context. That is,looking just at what we actually say will tell you nothing, butyou must look at the way that what you say fits in with thelanguage game employed. Wittgenstein uses the term ‘languagegame’ to describe the way that we use our language in aparticular circumstance for a certain purpose. For instance, thelanguage game employed in describing the world is likely to bedifferent to that used in greeting a friend. Wittgenstein’s rejection of absolute truth can be seen asstemming both from the way that our language games originate, andthe clear differences that can be seen within them. Our languagegame originates from and is shaped by the way that we live ourlives. It has developed to be the most effective way ofdescribing what we think and how we behave. “…A meaning of aword is a kind of employment of it. For it is what we learn whenthe word is incorporated into our language.” (LudwigWittgenstein, On Certainty 61). So to understand a language gameaccording to Wittgenstein, is to understand all the activitiesof the culture in which it is used. And just as the only realway to learn a foreign language is to put yourself into asituation where it is in constant use, so the only way to trulyunderstand the language games involved in that language would beto immerse yourself fully into that culture, its beliefs and itspractices. After all, it is in this way that children firstlearn their language. In rejecting the notion of absolute truth, Wittgenstein pointsto both the different pictures of the world occurring betweencultures, and those that can be seen to differ over time. To illustrate the falseness of absolute truth, Wittgenstein takesone of the propositions that Moore hold to be absolutely true:”the earth had existed…for many years before my body was born;”(G.E. Moore, Philosophical Papers Page 33). He now asks us toimagine the case of a king who has been brought up in the beliefthat the world was created at his birth. If the king and Moorewere to meet, is there anything that Moore could say that wouldmake the king come to believe Moore’s view? It is quite likelythat Moore’s view would seem as ridiculous to the king as theking’s view appears to Moore and to those of us who like Moorehold that the world has existed for a long time past. Wittgenstein adds, “I do not say that Moore could not convert theking to his view, but it would be a conversion of a special kind;the king would be brought to look at the world in a differentway.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty 92). In other words,for the king to comprehend Moore’s view, it would require thathe came to fully understand and accept his entire culture. The falseness of absolute truth can also be seen by the differentviews that have been held to be true over time. “At certainperiods men find reasonable what at other periods they foundunreasonable. And vice versa.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, OnCertainty 336). This is in fact brilliantly illustrated throughone of the examples used by Wittgenstein in discussing Moore. He suggests that (within our culture) it would be ridiculous toeven contemplate the possibility of having been on the moon, as”no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is a long way off andit is impossible to climb up there or fly there.” (LudwigWittgenstein, On Certainty 106). What seemed ridiculous toWittgenstein in 1950, actually took place less than 20 yearslater. We can therefore see that what we hold to be true only holdssubjective and not absolute truth, as it is only true within thelanguage game that we employ in our culture at that particulartime. So how does giving up the idea of absolute truth affect us? Isanything of significance lost in giving up this notion? Afterall, in many instances we do accept our stated truths to holduniversal validity. What implications are there for suchconcepts (eg. a universal declaration of human rights) if we movenow to only giving them the status of truth within a particularculture and way of thinking? Perhaps the most important implication of abandoning the notionof absolute truth can be seen in terms of our interactions withother cultures that do not share our truths. While you hold thatabsolute truths exist, you can clearly have a moral guide onwhich to base your action. If we can establish certain basicuniversal (absolute) human rights, then we can be fully justifiedin condemning those who violate those rights, and through thiscan act accordingly and with justification in intervening toprevent these violations. The most obvious example of this wouldbe World War Two, in which war with Hitler could be morallyargued in terms of his extermination of the Jews. But if weabandon absolute truth, do we also abandon all notions ofmorality? For if his view is as justified in terms of hisculture and beliefs as our view is in terms of ours, then can ourintervention have any moral grounds, or would we be forced toaccept that it was simply imperialism on our part in imposing ourview over his? This argument can be taken all the way to encapsulate anyinteraction at all. If I spend much of a seminar discussing myown concerns or ideas, then that is at the expense of othermembers of the group, and could be seen in the same way to beshowing that I find my own (subjective) viewpoint to be morevalid than the concerns of the rest of the group. In this casealso it would appear that my action is ‘imperialistic’. I think that to answer this is to decide whether the concept ofpersonal morality is meaningful. By that I mean that you do notnecessarily have to conclude that all action of this kind willbe imperialistic, if you feel that your own morality (based onwhat you believe to be right and wrong) can be justifiably putinto action. Surely you do give your own views greaterimportance because they are your views. If you cannot act interms of what you see as just, then how can you act at all? Unless you do act in this way, then your life will not have anybasis on which to function and will not be manageable. Furtherto this, I might suggest that subjective truth holds greatervalidity than a falsely held absolute truth, as while absolutetruth requires no justification (it is simply the truth),subjective truth relies on the explanatory grounds for it, andas such is open to negotiation and consequent modification. Another aspect that might at first be seen to be lost in givingup the notion of absolute truth is idealism. If we believe thatall people have the same essential truths at their heart eg. abasic notion and acceptance of human rights, then we accept thatdeep down we all believe the same things and it is consequentlyjust a matter of bringing these shared beliefs out, and all theconflict in the world will be resolved. This utopian dream canbe seen in the work of Karl Marx for instance, who suggests thatthe workers of the world all share in a common oppression underthe capitalist system: “The workers of the world have nothing tolose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers ofthe world, unite.” (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The CommunistManifesto). If we abandon the notion of absolute truth, then dowe reject all notions of idealism and utopia? I think that initially, but not inevitably this is the case. Perhaps idealism can be recaptured through a re-evaluation of ourconcept of love. While we may not in abandoning absolute truthbe able to look to the beliefs that are common to all of us tounite us, it is evident that what we do have in common is ourhumanness. The error in our usual concept of love is theexclusivity that we give it. By instead striving for a universallove, the utopia that can clearly be worked towards underabsolute truth, can also be possible without it. This is wellput by W.H. Auden: “…For the error bred in the bone of eachwoman and each man craves what it cannot have, not universal lovebut to be loved alone…And no one exists alone; Hunger allowsno choice…we must love one another or die.” (W.H. Auden,September 1, 1939). So far then, giving up the notion of absolute truth does notnecessarily lose anything of significance. However, oneimportant part of Wittgenstein’s work, connected with therejection of absolute truth, is the removal of a ‘guide toaction’, which stems from his lack of theory. In refusing to putforward a philosophical theory, Wittgenstein avoids suggestingthat there is a way that you should live your life. This tiesin with the lack of absolute truth, as if some things can beestablished as certain (eg. moral truths) then you can, fromthem, live your life in a certain way. I do not though thinkthat this is a loss to be concerned with, as it is more realisticto see that as life is so complex, there is likely to be a whole variety of ways of living, none of which are necessarily morevalid than others. They only get their validity in terms of yourown views and notions of justice. This links in with notions of perfection, as without absolutetruth to set out a universal moral code, you have no notion ofmorality outside of your own mind to strive towards. Loss ofabsolute truth might therefore be seen as striking a blow atperfection. If anything, I would see this as being beneficial,as ultimately perfection is both unattainable in this world andundesirable. It is unattainable because of the complexity of ourworld. For instance, how would a ‘true’ vegetarian actuallylive? While it is relatively simple to stop eating meat or fish,do you stop taking photos because photographic film usesgelatine? Will you then stop buying newspapers as they containphotos? etc. It is undesirable because to strive too muchtowards the goal of perfection will only lead to misery. Theultimate perfection, if you follow these arguments through totheir logical conclusion, is death! In conclusion therefore, it would appear that the onlysignificant losses resulting from giving up the idea of absolutetruth are those which we should be all too happy to lose, notablythat of perfection. It does not lead to a necessary loss ofmorality or of idealism and utopia, and gives the possibilityinstead for living life in a much more thought out way, in whichwe live and interact in a more realistic and considerate manner. There are significant gains then, rather than significant losses,in giving up the idea of absolute truth. BIBLIOGRAPHYWittgenstein, Ludwig On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969)Moore, George Edward Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1959)Marx, Karl & Engels,Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (London: 1847)Auden, W.H. ‘September 1, 1939′ published in Mendelson, Edward (ed.) W.H. Auden -Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979) Theories promoting the welfare of non-human animals are relatively widely-held nowadays, but such concern is a relatively new phenomenon, viewed within the context of the last three thousand years of Western philosophy. In Western religions, eminent thinkers throughout history, from Paul to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas through to Pope Pius IX have held that consideration of the interestsof animals is at best peripheral to the central question of how we should conduct ourselves. Similarly, moral philosophers such as Aristotle and Kant have denied the existence of non-human animals within our sphere of morality. Indeed, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative implicitly excludes non-human animals from our sphere of concern: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an ends and never as a means only.” Times have most definitely changed since Kant’s era, however. These days one would be hard-pushed to find a respected moral systemwhich has nothing to say about our obligations towards non-human animals (which, for the sake of conciseness, I shall henceforward call’animals’). During the course of this essay I shall compare and contrast some of the competing ethical traditions from which many contemporary philosophers derive their conclusions concerning the ethical viability of killing animals to eat them, thereby arriving atan acceptable ethical conclusion on the issue. Of the leading figures in contemporary moral philosophy, Peter Singer is perhaps the best known sponsor of the animal liberation movement. Singer has been broadly described as a utilitarian in theBenthamite tradition, and he applies his utilitarian beliefs in ‘AllAnimals Are Equal’ to convince us that giving less consideration tothe interests of animals amounts to nothing more than ’speciesism’, which is just as bad as racism or sexism. Singer’s views concerning killing animals for food flow from the principle of minimising suffering, as Singer believes that thesuffering of animals is an inevitable side effect of the commercial livestock industry. Singer aims to show us that when we readily reject the axiom, ‘To have rights, one must be a member of the Caucasian species/male gender, we reject it because it claims that one race or sex is morally superior to another. According to Singer,we do not base the demand for human equality on the actual equality of
human attributes. We accept that some humans are stronger, more intelligent or more rational than others, but we do not believe that these differences follow racial or gender boundaries. Even if they did, he claims, we would not use these differences as a basis for giving the interests of one race or sex more weight, because we base human equality on the ability to experience pain and pleasure. Similarly, we should extend this equal consideration of interests to all sentient beings, human or otherwise, because they have an equal capacity to experience pain and pleasure. To ignore this fact, according to Singer, is ’speciesism’, which is as bad as the most blatant racism or sexism. Singer takes a few stock objections to this position and shows that they are based on erroneous reasoning. That we can override the interests of all other animals because we are more intelligent and rational, for example is clearly false, firstly because it is not always true (pigs are more intelligent than anencephalic infants) and secondly because factual differences should not entail differences in the amount of consideration we give to the interests of human beings (Bentham’s principle allowed for “Each to count for one, and none for more than one”).Singer is not saying that animals have the same rights as humans. Intellectual or physiological differences may entail that we treat some beings differently because they have different interests. It isabsurd, for example, to grant a dog the right to vote or a man the right to an abortion. This does not entail, however, that we give the interests of animals less consideration. A being has the right to have its interests considered equally with all other beings if, and only if, it is sentient: “The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way.” Singer speaks of our duty to respect the rights of animals, but he makes it clear that talk of rights is merely a shorthand way of referring to the protection that sentient beings ought to have. Singer doesn’t want to say that animals have natural rights in the sense that animal rights theorists discussed later in this essay claim that they do. He is not interested in getting bogged down with philosophical discussion on the ultimate nature of rights, and probably has nothing more to add to Jeremy Bentham’s disparaging dismissal of rights as “nonsense on stilts”. For Singer, arguing that animals do not deserve our consideration because they are not autonomous and do not have rights is a red herring. The point is that if an animal can suffer, the principle of utility requires that its suffering be counted equally with the suffering of all other sentient beings. Having established to his satisfaction that speciesism is irrational, Singer shows us that we should not kill animals to eat them, because meat-eating betrays a speciesist attitude on the part of human beings. Even if suffering is not involved, says Singer, species cannot be what makes the difference in deciding that it’s okay to kill non-human animals. We must hold that “all beings who aresimilar in all relevant aspects have a similar right to life”. Reiterating the futility of pointing to capacities in humans which are not present in animals as a means by which we justify can giving less consideration to the interests of animals, Singer says, ” there will surely be some nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans.” Singer concludes that: (a) if it’s wrong to kill marginal humans, it’s wrong to kill animals with similar interests, and (b) if it’s okay to kill pigs, cows, sheep and so on, for quite trivial reasons, it must be okay to kill marginal humans . Singer merely wants to show that if it is ever right to kill an animal to eat it, it must be right to kill human beings of similar interests to eat them. If we want to say that the latter case is morally repugnant, we must say that be prepared to admit that the former case is also morally repugnant, if we are to be consistent. To summarise, then: Singer is not against the killing of animals per se. If he concedes that there may be a case, in some unfortunate circumstances, for letting, say, an anencephalic infant die, when there can be no hope of it ever gaining autonomy, he will concede thatany animal with the same interests has a similarly limited right to life. Singer believes that the killing of an animal for food, however, even when there is no suffering involved, entails the perpetuation of an industry which consistently violates the principle of equal consideration of interests. Utilitarianism, then, provides the challenge: how can we justify eating meat, when the existence of the commercial livestock industry perpetuates the misery of so many sentient beings? Tom Regan’s response is to ask whether his abstention from meat eating will improve the lot of one single animal. He believes it won’t, because livestock farming would continue to exist, unimpeded by his vegetarianism. So it seems that the ethical obligation of the individual cannot be based on the effects the individual’s acts would have on the welfare of animals. The utilitarian might reply that it’sthe sum of consequences of the many that will make a change, but this does not seem to be as concrete a truth as utilitarians would have us believe. Regan wants to know how Singer has come by the knowledge that if we don’t eat meat, then the world will be a better place. Perhaps, as Roger Scruton believes, such a boycott of meat would lead to a situation wherein animals were “neglected, ill-fed and riddled with disease” , as he believes they are in Hindu countries. It is difficult to know how Singer could reply to this objection, although I suspect he would claim that we would still be duty bound to consider the interests of animals after we had stopped rearing them for their meat, so cows, for example, would not be left to roam the streets as they do in India. This would be a rather weak response, though. It does not seem plausible that the consequence of turning our backs on the commercial livestock industry would ever be that cowswere cared for by benevolent humans who wanted nothing more from theiractions than the knowledge that those cows were happy. The point, according to Regan, is that we just cannot know, nor presume to predict, the likely fate of livestock animals in a vegetarian society: “If we simply do not know what the consequences of our becoming vegetarians would be then we simply lack any semblance of utilitarian justification for the obligation to become vegetarians or for amounting a frontal assault on commercial animal agriculture” An alternative strategy of attack for detractors of the principle of equal consideration of interests is to deny the parallels between racism, sexism, and what Singer calls ’speciesism’. Bonnie Steinbock finds Singer’s understanding of sentience as the only relevant factor for equal consideration of interests counter-intuitive. For Steinbock,it implies not only that a Catholic charity who gives aid only to starving Catholic children is unethical, but also that feeding starving children before starving dogs is also wrong. This may at first seem like an unsophisticated inference to draw from utilitarianism. The utilitarian can reply, after all, that it’s worseto allow a starving child to die than a dog, because of the attendant emotional anguish from which the child’s relatives would suffer when the child dies. This answer is surely missing the point though, as itseems to allow that if the child is an orphan, it may be that it is noworse to let the child die. Steinbock accepts that our intuitive preference of our own speciesdoes not necessarily render Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests unethical (indeed, in some ways it shows that Singer is right about our speciesist attitude). She does claim, however that such an intuitive preference gives us a motivation for looking for a philosophical account of our reasons for considering human interests above non-human ones. So Steinbock looks for differences between human and non-human animals that will justify different treatment, while not undermining claims for human equality. She concludes that humans have a differentmoral status from animals because they are held to be responsible for their actions, and because they can be motivated by recognition that someone is in pain. Furthermore, it is wrong to treat a human as a slave, but not, say, a cow, because humans desire to attain their own goals, and winot to be a means to another being’s end. Yet if Steinbock is trying not to undermine claims for human equality, then is seems she fails, for the simple reason that the capacities which she claims are unique to humans clearly aren’t present in marginal humans. On one hand, she believes that Singer is wrong to give equal importance to the suffering of all sentient beings, because this principle is not compatible with our instinctive preference of ‘our own’, and, on the other hand, as with all speciesists, she is drawing an arbitrary line between animals and humans which casts a number of marginal humans onto the side of the animals. The Rights View, a theory which has been used both to defend and to deny the moral status of animals, posits moral rights that certain individuals have, and our duty to respect those rights as a direct duty to those individuals. According to advocates of the Rights View,if you deny the existence of these moral rights, then the principles you put in their place will sanction morally reprehensible conduct. An example will serve to illustrate this point: my Uncle Joe has just invented a new type of pressure cooker that decreases the amount of time required to cook a casserole. I happen to know, however, that anyone who uses this cooker will suffer from mild hay fever every summer for the rest of their lives as a result. I decide, therefore, to murder my uncle, because I have calculated that the resultant epidemic of mildly-irritating hay fever would cause more misery in the world than the death of my uncle. The utilitarian is committed to saying that it is okay for me to murder my uncle, so long as overall utility is increased. Those who hold the Rights View, however, will hold that killing my uncle is morally repugnant, because any individual who has inherent value is due treatment which respects this value. Furthermore, we cannot treat Uncle Joe, or any individual with inherent value, for that matter, as means to bring about the best ends. Individuals who have this value are persons who,according to Tom Regan, “perceive and remember, believe and desire, have feelings and emotions” . If animals have these capacities, then,according to the Rights View, they are persons with rights. According to animal rights advocates of this tradition, commercial livestock farming is wrong because it treats animals as means (to secure my roast dinner) and violates their autonomy, even if no suffering is involved. The attractive feature of this approach is that it doesn’t requirethat we know what the consequences of vegetarianism will be, and it doesn’t treat persons as numbers in some grand econometric calculus of morality. It seems absurd, however, to suggest that even the most sophisticated primates have the kind of autonomy which the rights viewrequires as a pre-condition of treating them as moral beings, let alone the kind of animals that form a part of the average cooked breakfast or Sunday lunch. Roger Scruton points out that if animals had rights, then they would have duties too, and that it is surely absurd to talk of an animal as having duties. According to Scruton, if we tried to decide how we should treat animals based on a calculus of rights and duties, we would end up deciding that we had no obligations to them at all. For Scruton, animals are non-moral beingswhich exist outside of the realm of the moral law, and have no rights. We assume duties toward the animals we make dependant on us for their well-being, and our moral considerations are derived not from the moral law, but from the other three routes of moral feeling: virtue, sympathy and piety. Scruton believes that farm animals that are well looked-after, and killed humanely, only enjoy a happy life because we put them there so that we will eventually be able to eat them. In other words, they live comfortable, happy lives because they get eaten, not in spite of that fact. It is therefore morally obligatory to eat animals whose continuing comfort depends on the fact that we are going to. Scruton’s picture of animals living a nice life in the fields because we behave towards them in a virtuous, sympathetic manner is in stark contrast to images of badly neglected animals which he believes would be a consequence of the utilitarian approach to animal welfare. One cannot deny the fact that it is also in stark contrast to the gruesome details of factory farming which Singer describes in ‘Animal Liberation’ , however. Singer would challenge Scruton to explain how supporting an industry of which an integral part is the torturous methods of factory farming used to produce most supermarket chickens is consistent with moral behaviour towards animals governed by considerations of virtue. Scruton would probably agree that we should boycott battery-farmed products, but he would insist that we can kill animals for food, provided they are well-kept. Scruton, after all, allows reference to utilitarianism where the moral law is silent. Scruton would say that it’s okay to kill a calf to eat it, as long as it’s life constitutes an addition to the sum of happiness. Singer, on the other hand, would say that it’s okay to kill a calf as long as its life increased utility, and its, death did not decreaseutility (if its death entailed its immediate replacement by an equally happy calf, for example). In both cases, it seems morally repugnant to imply that this reasoning should also apply to humans. Singer would have to agree that it should. Scruton, on the other hand, would remind us that humans exist within the sphere of the moral law, and that utilitarian concerns become irrelevant where the moral law can be applied. In summary, then, it seems that utilitarianism provides a good reason for believing that we should give equal consideration to the interests of all sentient beings, because to do otherwise would be speciesist. Steinbock trys to show that there is nothing wrong with being speciesist in certain circumstances, but fails to show why, without jeopardising human equality. Utilitarianism, however, does not provide us with adequate grounds for believing that adopting vegetarianism would increase the amount of utility in the world.