Friday, October 19, 2018

Animals and Authority: with Authority Comes Responsibility


Where should we draw the insuperable line? What morally significant difference separates moral agents from other living things? Many historical and present-day injustices occur not because the groups involved didn’t know that certain acts were wrong (many normative theories converge on what constitutes right action in easy cases), but because one group failed to include some other group within the scope of its moral community (e.g., Jews during WWII or Blacks in America before the mid-19th Century). Many injustices involve a problem of scope.

This question in animal ethics has been debated thoroughly, maybe to the point where it too could be relegated to the pile of unresolved issues that ultimately depend on one’s metaphysical commitments. Maybe reason has done all that it can?

The animal rights defender Tom Regan (1983) argued that any attempts to limit the scope of rights to humans based on some capacity is rationally defective for two reasons: (1) some humans lack the identified capacity and (2) some animals have it. Regan’s argument seems right that any identified criterion will face these difficulties (along with difficulties in specifying exactly the nature of the capacity (e.g., autonomy) and determining whether it is animals who lack it or humans who have failed to design experiments to measure it). The unapologetic speciesist Carl Cohen (1986) responds that it is not about patterns of measurable external behavior, but about having the requisite internal mental state. He ultimately claims it was never a matter of exhibiting a capacity, but about being a certain kind of being.

Instead of identifying a criterion for moral status, maybe one promising way forward is to focus on what humans have and its ramifications. Humans often have authority over animals. I think we can set aside what capacities humans have that enable them to have authority or whether they should have authority. We can simply begin with the fact that humans often have authority over certain animals and then think about what this entails.

Authority, according to Joseph Raz, is a species of normative power, which he defines as a power to effect a normative change or change a person’s reasons for action (1979; 1990). Raz’s conception of authority consists of two, among others, distinct moral theses, the dependence and normal justification theses, which together provide moral justification for authority (1986; 2009).

Dependence Thesis (DT): “all authoritative directives should be based on reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives and are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive” (1986, p. 47).

Normal Justification Thesis (NJT): Authority is justified when, “…the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly” (1986, p. 53).

Raz’s account is called a service conception because, as reflected in the dependence thesis, the primary role of authority is to serve one’s subjects and address the reasons that apply to them. While I don’t agree entirely with Raz’s conception, I do think that justified authority includes something like DT and NJT.

If this is what we mean by having justified authority over another, what does this entail?

Basically, this: with authority comes responsibility. The word “authority” may bring to mind the state or law enforcement, but another paradigmatic example is a parent’s power over a child. A five-year-old child has good reasons to eat her vegetables, but would better achieve those reasons (e.g., health) by complying with her mother’s directive “Eat your vegetables!” than if the child was left to her own devices. I’m using the parent-child example because a child may not have developed reasoning skills to come up with her own reasons or even the capacity to act for those reasons. From an objective or third-personal perspective, we can observe that a child has these reasons that apply to her and that she would be better off if she listened to her mother.

If it is true that humans have authority over nonhuman animals, and if we want our exercise of power to be morally justified—an instance of de jure authority as opposed to de facto authority, then it should be consistent with DT and NJT. Humans have power over animals in various ways. Animals are kept in captivity and used for various purposes, including companionship, agriculture, experiments, and entertainment. Human caretakers have control over things that animals need, such as food, water, shelter, sufficient space or territory, exercise, and social interaction. Human caretakers can impose rules and practices that provide animals with their species-specific needs and promote their species-specific behaviors or they can impose rules that deprive animals of these things. Consistent with DT, human rules regarding captive animals should be based on reasons that already apply to them. Consistent with NJT, human rules over captive animals should help them to achieve the reasons that apply to them than if they were left to their own devices. Human rules regarding animals should serve to help animals achieve their species-specific needs and behaviors.

Justified authority is demanding in its application to both humans and animals; some may call it ideal. Nevertheless, many of us may agree that it is how we ought to live. When we exercise power over other humans, we ought to use our power in ways that would help those we serve, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on us. When we exercise power over animals, we similarly ought to use our power in ways that recognize that with great authority comes great responsibility (see Palmer 2011). Our current use of animals are the result of historical practices and modern institutional standards, but it need not always be this way. We ought to be humbled by our responsibility and seek to change our practices and standards to be more consistent with these necessary conditions of de jure authority.

Chong Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

10 comments:

  1. One of the reasons you cite for liking this account is that it’s supposed to avoid complicated debates about capacities and moral status. But does it really? Relationships of normative authority (unlike simple power) require the subject to have some pretty high-level cognitive capacities. Animals we use for food aren’t reasons-responsive and don’t have reasons for action in the way that accounts of normative authority would need them to have. You might disagree with this claim about animals, but it seems like if you do then we’ve backed into a debate about capacities.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Kyle. In the initial version of this post, I included three objections; yours was one of them.

      My initial version of the objection: Humans have authority over animals in the same way that they have authority over property; animals are not the sort of things that are responsive to reasons for action.

      Yes, I agree that this brings us right back to the metaphysical debate. The canonical conception of normative authority, Raz’s conception, also includes the preemptive thesis: “the fact that an authority requires performance of an action is a reason for its performance which is not to be added to all other relevant reasons when assessing what to do, but should exclude and take the place of some of them” (1986, p. 46). The directive operates as a special kind of reason, an exclusionary reason, that preempts and prevails over the balance of reasons for action. As you say, this account of normative authority has a certain sort of moral agent in mind, one who has high-level cognitive capacities.

      The debate over capacities seems unavoidable, but I would suggest that the concept of authority can still be fruitful here, not because others are wrong about animal capacities, but because maybe we’re working with the wrong conception of authority. This is why I gave the parent-child example. That, to me, seems to be a paradigmatic example of authority, one that may not be fully captured by the extension of Raz’s conception. As I said in my post, I like DT and NJT (though I would formulate them differently), but I don’t think that authority necessarily has to be defined with a normative commitment to rationalism (and individualism). Raz’s account works great with someone like a Kantian agent, but doesn’t work so well with animals, children, those with diminished autonomy. Yet, there seems to be a kind of normative power at work in relationships involving these individuals too. My account of authority (a work in progress) focuses on certain asymmetrical relationships and the obligations of the person in power in those relationships.

      Joseph Raz. 1986. The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    2. Hi Chong,

      Thanks for the post, which I find very interesting. To continue the thread with Kyle and perhaps to help flesh out your conception of authority, the parent-child example might be useful with animals since a child can lack the complex rational capacities of an adult human. You write: "I’m using the parent-child example because a child may not have developed reasoning skills to come up with her own reasons or even the capacity to act for those reasons. From an objective or third-personal perspective, we can observe that a child has these reasons that apply to her and that she would be better off if she listened to her mother." However, the introduction of the concept of authority may not be fruitful over and above the capacities debate if we instill the capacities debate into the notion of authority itself. For e.g., we have to have the kind of responsible authority similar to a parent-child relationship for beings with certain capacities but not the same beneficial level of authority for others that lack those capacities. Then the discussion on authority and what kind of authority humans should project on non-human animals rests on the typical debate between whether, e.g, a child has a different moral status than a non-human animal. So, my question is whether or not there's a way to get your self-admittedly work in progress theory of authority to "still be fruitful here" and to be independent of the capacities debate such that it can be fruitful regardless of how the capacities debate ends up.

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    3. Chong, depending on the age and capacities of the child, I don’t think the parent-child relationship is a paradigmatic example of the sort of (de jure, moral) authority on the table here. When I would say to my then-infant daughter, “Lucy, stay still” when trying to change her diaper, I wasn’t issuing a directive that would ground reactive attitudes or hold her accountable to a standard related to her reasons for action. Same goes when someone nudges a cow to the slaughter room. These just aren’t the sort of moral relations we have with such beings. With respect to them, we don’t exercise any normative power that’s characteristic of a moral directive. We just exercise power, which is (or isn’t) morally justified in terms of things like how it affects various interests or promotes certain values or whether certain permissions and prerogatives are appropriately grounded, etc. So, great power comes with great responsibility, too, just like Uncle Ben said.

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    4. John and Kyle, I am thinking of a normative authority that no longer hinges itself on the reasoning capacities of an individual subject to authority. I agree with Raz that authority is a species of power that affects a normative change and I agree that its moral justification depends on its effectiveness in serving the reasons that apply to the subject. But that is about where my agreement with Raz ends.

      There has to be a normative change, but it does not have to be a change in the subject’s own reasons for action. The correlative of a power is not a duty to obey, but a liability (maybe that one is liable for the consequences of stepping out of line). Even if the proponent of the canonical conception of authority insists that the directive or command must affect a change in the subject’s reasons for action, what the reasons are and that the directive affects a change in the subject’s reasons for action may be observed from an objective or third personal perspective: given the directive, what the subject would do or would have decided to do.

      This may require that the subject in question is the sort of thing that has some cognitive capacities (a five-year-old child or chimpanzee; I would have to think more about whether this applies for a very, very young child), but I don’t see why it requires high-level cognitive capacities. I think there is wide agreement that animals have some cognitive capacities, but there is wide disagreement about the level of those capacities. So, the point here is to conceptualize authority in such a way to capture the kinds of normative power that some have over others, including those that are not fully autonomous (so that the disagreement no longer matters). I also think the canonical conception of normative authority just doesn’t capture a lot of the actual instances of normative authority in the world. I’m not speaking of just power either, I’m speaking of a normative power (authority as a power to affect a normative change, morally justified authority by serving those subject to authority).

      I really appreciate the help in thinking through this.

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  3. Hi Chong,

    If I'm reading your correctly, then it seems like an implication of your view is that we must abolish many, if not most farming practices as they currently exist. It is hard for me to see how we could justify slaughtering animals at a fraction of their natural life span if to be justified we must "use our power in ways that would help those we serve, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on us." So if nothing else, all meat farming is unjustified.

    Am I reading you correctly? I certainly don't have a problem with that conclusion, I just want to make sure understand the implications your view has.

    If that is right, how far would this transform farming practices? Would it abolish dairy and egg farming? Just limit them considerably? What about fisheries and apiaries (human created bee farms)? Are those unjustified on your view?

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    1. Hi Garret, thanks for your comment (love when I get push back in both directions).

      What constitutes animal well-being is a related but separate question, the answer to which may vary from culture to culture. I mentioned providing for species-specific needs and promoting species-specific behaviors. I agree that, regardless of one’s cultural norms, this approach would be demanding and require pretty drastic changes in our practices.

      On this question, my view is that the standards of care for captive animals should be determined by either the condition of the same species in the wild or, maybe more demandingly, the optimal conditions of the same species in the wild (I’ve been watching too many episodes of Nat Geo Safari Live and the idea of a quick kill may be optimal, but not necessarily realistic, given such practices in the wild as a lioness’s training of her cubs, who may be horribly inefficient in their methods of killing, at first).

      This view may be inconsistent with ripping infants from their mothers’ breasts, keeping them confined in small cages, injecting them with diseases or harmful drugs, subjecting them to torture, and so forth. But it may still be consistent with some research (biomedical research or behavioral research for the species own benefit), some humane farming, some domestication for companionship, and some entertainment (riding horses, not dog fighting). I think there’s wide agreement that we should reform our practices (which are based on outdated scientific information concerning animals). But our entrenched practices that serve various human interests are resistant to change. I think, as ethicists, we motivate change by putting some oomph behind the “should” (and maybe this involves providing justification that many--not just a few--can accept).

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    2. Chong, do you think it matters the condition of animals in the wild is, basically without exception, terrible? Almost all wild animals live very short lives in which they experience little more than suffering before dying painful deaths associated with being killed by other animals, disease, weather conditions, accident/injury, and starvation. Is this the baseline for how we should treat captive animals?

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  4. Kyle, the condition of animals in the wild is insecure for the reasons you mentioned. But there seems to be a qualitative difference between the sorts of threats that animals encounter in the wild and some of the harms and risks of harm they’re exposed to in captivity. I’m reluctant to use the categories natural and artificial. Maybe ordinary and extraordinary is better. I think we can draw a distinction between ordinary conditions in the wild and human-caused or human-created extraordinary conditions.

    Animals may encounter both ordinary and extraordinary threats in both the wild and in captivity. Just this week a lioness killed the father of her three cubs at an Indianapolis zoo (in case the link doesn't work: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/lioness-kills-father-her-three-cubs-indianapolis-zoo-n922681).

    Unlike such ordinary threats, there is something morally questionable about exposing animals to human-created extraordinary harms and risks of harms, especially when those harms involve long and drawn out forms of what essentially amounts to torture (http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/cosmetic_testing/?credit=web_id93480558). I would suggest that exposing animals to such conditions would violate the above-mentioned responsibility to provide for species-specific needs and behaviors.

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