Monday, March 19, 2007

Existentialist bear criticized by nature-loving a priorists!

German animal-lovers are divided on the issue of "Cute Knut", an orphan polar bear that has (so far) been raised by human beings at the Berlin Zoo. Some argue that the bear should have been euthanized, for "[i]f a polar bear mother rejected the baby, then ... the zoo must follow the instincts of nature." And like-minded others argue that "[t]he animal will be fixated on his keeper and not be a 'real' polar bear," and that being raised by humans is "not appropriate to the species."

As Thom Yorke said, we hope your rules and wisdom choke you. The very idea that a being would be better of dead simply because it's not living a "natural" life -- well, I guess I just can't make sense of it. Let me try to explain why. Here a situation in which it seems like you might be better of dead if you couldn't live a natural life: you're a fish, and you're not allowed to live in water, but when you're outside of water you are in constant pain and suffering from lack of oxygen, and (this may go without saying) you don't have any important Williamsonian ground projects that involve being out of water. If that's you, then you'd be better off dead.

But that is because the unnatural life that you're forced to live is a life of pain and suffering (with no compensation when it comes to the things you really care about). It's not the mere fact that your life is unnatural that makes it a life not worth living. What ultimately explains why your life is not worth living, in that case, is not the fact that your life is unnatural. Rather, it's the pain and suffering.

In the case of a fish, intuitively, there may be nothing more to the good life than pleasure and pain -- any fish life that isn't a life of suffering is a fish life worth living, for a fish. How might other animals -- including humans -- be different? The existentialists (and American sympathizers like Frankfurt, Nagel, and Williams) have an answer to this question: (roughly) human beings have values, i.e. things they love and care about, i.e. projects that give meaning to their lives. On a less grand scale, many animals (including humans) have interests, desires, concerns, preferences. To the extent that you have these sorts of wants (whether they rise to the level of existentially significant "ground projects" or not), your life is worsened by not getting what you want, in the same way that its worsened by pain and suffering. So the question we have to ask about Cute Knut, it seems to me, has nothing to do with the biological nature of bears, and everything to do with what he wants, and whether he's getting it.

Can we attribute to Knut a ground project of wanting to be a "real" bear, according to zoological standards? Of course we can't -- what Knut cares about is getting food, and playing with a toilet brush, or whatever. He could care less about living up to his biological nature, if he even things about such things, which he doesn't -- and that's the real point. What's "natural" can't matter to a being that doesn't (and probably can't) form thoughts about what's "natural." And if it can't matter to Knut, then it can't be the difference maker for whether his is a life worth living.

(Allan Hazlett)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Next Public Lecture: Simon Feldman, March 22nd

The next Public Lecture in the Philosophy Department will be on Thursday, March 22nd, at 7:00 in English/Philosophy LH01. The speaker will be Simon Feldman from Connecticut College. An abstract of his talk is below.

Abstract of "Locating Conscience: Conflict, Integrity and the Limits of Morality":

How demanding are the requirements of morality? If we are permitted to privilege ourselves and our projects at the expense of the impartial good or at the expense of respecting the categorical imperative, what explains this? In "Persons Character and Morality" and "Consequentialism and Integrity" Bernard Williams suggests an "integrity"-based critique of impartial morality. The aims of this talk are three: (1) to attempt to explain Williams' critique of demanding morality, (2) to suggest two ways in which Williams' critique fails (one having to do with his construal of our moral psychology and the other explicitly ethical), and (3) to re-describe our moral psychology in a way that suggests a principled account of our commonsense intuitions about the limits of morality.

Plato = Aristotle?

At his second talk last week Hugh Benson said some things about Plato that made Plato sound a lot like Aristotle. In particular, I got worried that, on Benson's view, a crucial Platonic thesis -- that a well-ordered soul is necessary and sufficient for happiness -- was not actually Plato's view. My suspicions were aroused by some things Benson said about philosophers and political "power", and about knowledge and virtue. All philosophers have political "power", but they don't all live in worlds where this "power" can be manifested; all those who have knowledge have virtue, but they don't all live in worlds where this virtue results in virtuous action. This sounds like luck is playing a big role in whether someone who is internally good (someone who is a philosopher, someone who has knowledge) ends up achieving various external goods (actual political power, an actually virtuous life). That sounds like Aristotle.

But my worries were appeased (as they so often are!) at the bar, later that day. Here is a picture of the difference between Aristotle and Plato, which Benson tentatively approved. The two philosophers agree that there are three sorts of goods you can attain:

1. You can be internally good (i.e. have a "well-ordered soul" by being philosophically reflective)
2. You can be virtuous (in the sense that you can have a virtuous character, in the sense that you are disposed towards right action and emotion, i.e. you can have the capacity for living a virtuous life).
3. You can actually live a virtuous life, and get properly rewarded for it.

They agree that those are three goods that you can attain. And they also agree that (1) is sufficent for (2) -- a controversial claim in its own right. And they agree that (2) is not sufficient for (3), since it takes some contingent luck for (2) to lead to (3).

What they disagree about is which of (1) - (3) is necessary and sufficient for happiness, or living a good life. Plato thinks that (2) is sufficient for happiness (along with (1), of course), but Aristotle thinks that (3) is necessary as well. So Plato does endorse the controversial (and false!) Platonic thesis that an internally "well-ordered soul" is sufficient for happiness, since satisfying (1) and (2) is an internal matter; it requires no "cooperation from the world," it requires (for Plato, at least) no luck. And Aristotle does deny this thesis, since satisfying (3) is an external matter; it requires "cooperation from the world," it requires luck.

(Allan Hazlett)