Code PD-5

A Pragmatic Non-Rights Approach to the Environment and Animals


Some would argue that more direct consideration of the question of whether we have moral obligations to other animals is a product of the gradual progress of morality.  This is not necessarily to say that the scope of morality "naturally" expands so as to be more and more inclusive.  It may be only to claim that we have reached an historical stage in most of the developed world where there is some general consensus that all persons should in principle be afforded equal minimal moral consideration, or if not, that the implications for extending equal consideration to everyone are always present as a set of ethical choices which we must consider.  Maximally this means that everyone’s "interests," however those are understood, should be given equal consideration whenever possible despite the differences between them.  Of course, this does not mean that people are not in fact still treated differently based on contingent categories such as class, race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as intellectual or physical capacities.  Sexism, racism, homophobia and the like are still rampant and oftentimes embodied in law and policy.  We seem to agree, though, that equal consideration of interests is a reasonable moral question for individual behavior, as well as social policy, even if we disagree about the implications of what achieving equal consideration would entail in all cases. 

If we agree that equal consideration of interests is appropriate among and between persons then it makes sense to ask the next question:  Are human interests the only ones that matter in a complete moral scheme?  Further, if we reject racism, etc., what justifies what Singer has identified as "speciesism?  How can we morally justify avoiding harms and granting benefits to humans and not doing the same (or weighing differently) the harms and benefits thought appropriate to other animals?  While many arguments have been put forward to justify human exceptionalism in moral consideration – the existence of a soul, superior mental capacities, custom, etc. – such criteria generally do not hold up to careful scrutiny.  And once we have admitted that we do as a matter of course grant minimal moral consideration to members of our own species who lack many capacities thought to warrant moral treatment in "normal" adult humans, such as infants and the mentally infirm, then it becomes very difficult to claim that there is no moral issue at stake in our treatment of other animals. 

While the debates about these issues have been substantial in the last three decades, the voice of pragmatism has been missing.  This panel consists of four papers that employ a pragmatic method of inquiry to explore issues involving the moral standing of animals.  Issues of environmental ethics, of hunting, and of raising livestock are all discussed.  Most of the papers employ a Deweyan method of inquiry: the method of intelligence and/or the method of democracy.  Given Dewey’s large and rich corpus, these essays are all able to draw on different aspects of his theory.  While taking the method of inquiry as central, they move to discuss his theory as a method of conflict resolution, as a way to sort out competing ethical claims, and as a way to investigate a problem.


 "Beyond Considerability: A Deweyan View of the Animal Rights/Environmental Ethics Debate"

In environmental ethics, philosophers have made much hay from the deep gulf dividing the moral foundations of animal rights/welfare approaches and the ecologically oriented ethical stances that constitute the mainstream of the field’s discourse.   Indeed, it is a common practice, especially when introducing students to the main positions and debates in the field, to dwell on this division and its import for both philosophical argument and environmental practices and policies.  The consensus view still appears to be that the two projects are in most important respects mutually exclusive, although an increasing number of papers challenging this conclusion in one way or another are perhaps the beginnings of an interesting shift in the discussion.  Yet it is still safe to say that most environmental ethicists believe that there are at the very least serious tensions between the two bodies of theory, tensions that, especially in the founding years of the debate, were perhaps ratcheted up by the exchange of some overheated rhetoric on both sides. 

            This paper examines how an explicit pragmatic perspective on the animal rights/environmental ethics debate – specifically, a Deweyan model of moral inquiry – might offer a new way of framing the general philosophical question over the "moral considerability" and comparative moral significance of animals and ecological wholes (i.e., natural systems and processes).  In fact, the author argues that this approach implies a distinct movement away from the presumption that the debate is best resolved on these grounds; i.e., through the articulation and defense of any particular claim based on an attribution of moral standing and significance.  Part of the pragmatic legacy (and John Dewey’s work in particular) is the attempt to wean us off of these theoretical and methodological predilections in the search for authoritative moral standards, rules, and principles and the deduction of practical judgments and policy arguments from them.  Yet it seems that most environmental ethicists and animal welfare/rights philosophers continue to insist on the primary significance of these questions of moral considerability and the duties they impose in adjudicating environment-animal conflicts, despite the philosophical train wreck this approach seems to have caused between the two projects.

Instead, in this paper, the author suggests that we should recognize the virtues of an environmental ethical approach that moves beyond attributions of considerability; one that focuses more of its attention on the experimental method of moral inquiry and dispute resolution that figure prominently in Dewey’s work.  The author claims that this pragmatic reframing of the animal rights/environmental ethics debate is not only more philosophically sound, but that it opens up a number of new and significant possibilities for intelligent problem solving in specific animal-environment conflicts.   Indeed, this Deweyan approach makes good on the early promise of "environmental pragmatism" as an especially useful and effective style of practical ethical reasoning, one that offers a number of advantages over its main rivals in environmental ethics.

To map out the discussion, this paper will first examine how the question of moral considerability in the animal rights/environmental ethics debate has been featured in the work of philosophers such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, J. Baird Callicott, and Holmes Rolston.  The author concludes that this historical emphasis on moral standing leads to irresolvable questions that would best be avoided in a pragmatic-oriented environmental ethics.  Then a few more recent attempts at reconciling environmental ethics and animal rights that have focused on bringing the two positions together at the level of moral principle are considered.  While these efforts are significant in their attempt to establish normative compatibility between the two sets of positions, they do not pay sufficient attention to the role of experimental moral inquiry and problem-oriented thinking in specific conflict situations.  This leads to a discussion of how a Deweyan reconstruction of the debate from general defenses of moral considerability to a recognition of the ethical weight of specific "problematic situations" involving practical contests between animal rights positions and environmental commitments, is a better way to conceptualize and address the contests between them.  The final section makes a suggestive case for the similarities shared by this Deweyan approach to ethics and some of the more well-known projects appearing in the contemporary dispute resolution literature, and concludes by arguing that a pragmatic recasting of environmental ethics as an applied process of dispute resolution can bring the field into a more useful relationship with the problems of environmental practice, including the conflicts between animal liberation/rights and environmental ethics considerations.


"Methodological Pragmatism, Animal Welfare, and Hunting"

Environmental ethics ought to be able to make some kind of contribution to the resolution of environmental problems at the level of law or policy.  If it can’t, why do this kind of philosophy in the first place?  Many however do not share this view.  J. Baird Callicott  argues that environmental ethics fulfills its promise as a field of philosophy and environmental activity if it concentrates on the project of either offering an alternative human worldview toward the environment or refining theories of why nature (either ecosystems, species, or writ large) has some kind of non-instrumental or intrinsic value that warrants moral recognition or obligation.  But while figures like Callicott can point to examples of how environmental ethicists have used such work to influence either activist environmental organizations or the public policy process, there are ample reasons to believe that either this approach to environmental ethics is too limited, or that the results are largely inconsequential for the work of environmental advocates.  For the fact remains that most work in environmental ethics is aimed at engagement in intramural debates between and among environmental ethicists over issues such as the moral foundations for a nonanthropocentric intrinsic value of nature.  Precious little in this literature is of any direct use to those who are actually trying to form laws or policies given that the social realm of law and policy must of necessity be aimed at appeals to human interests which are usually not considered in such debates.

If, as I believe, it is important to push environmental ethics away from its intramural fixations, then does it actually do any good to add another dimension to the meta-ethical debates in the field by helping to jump start one founded in classical American philosophy?  In other words, do we do any good by collecting the work of those committed to the pantheon of American philosophy – Dewey, James, Pierce, etc. – as they have applied the developed insights of those figures to environmental problems and the on-going debates in environmental ethics?  Moreover, given the fact that most philosophers educated in both the Anglo-American and European Continental traditions are taught from the beginning either that pragmatism is a historical relic that should be rejected, or have it ignored in their curricula altogether, isn’t the side that is being offered to environmental ethicists under the name "pragmatism" one that can be quite easily ignored? 

            One answer to such concerns is that if taking seriously an orthodox pragmatist position on environmental ethics requires taking seriously larger pragmatist themes, then so much the worse for those not trained in this literature.  They will just have to learn more about pragmatism to adequately answer these arguments and in the end that will be good for them.  Another answer is that pragmatists will have to amend how they do environmental ethics if they are going to make a contribution to the field in the same way that they have in other areas of applied ethics.  Given the general hostility to pragmatism in the larger philosophical world, pragmatists can’t afford to come off like Thomists, simply sighting text and verse of Dewey or someone else and then assuming that the appeal to authority will carry some weight.  But there is a third answer, namely one that tries to offer a methodology that environmental ethicists can use to set aside some of the debates that occupy most of their time and instead focus more closely on a kind of philosophical work which could be most relevant to environmental advocates on the ground.  This version of environmental pragmatism doesn’t have much to do with applying Dewey, James, Pierce, or any other figure to environmental problems at hand even though there is some family resemblance between it and their thought.  More critically, such a position wouldn’t require those embracing this view to either become pragmatists themselves or appeal directly to larger pragmatist themes.

            This kind of environmental pragmatism can be called "methodological environmental pragmatism."  This paper makes a brief case for methodological environmental pragmatism, clarifies its virtues, and then explores its relevance to debates between environmental ethicists and animal welfare and rights views.  Finally, methodological environmental pragmatism will be used to approach a particular issue in the literature on animal welfare, namely controversies over the permissibility of hunting. The author argues that while hunting often presents a significant hurdle for reconciliation of animal welfare and environmentalist positions, it need not in every case.  The simple dichotomy that hunting is permissible for environmental ethicists and impermissible for animal liberationists is false.  However, some cases, like the Makah whaling, make for difficult discussions.  Like other descriptions of the possible relevance of pragmatism to these issues, this approach allows for a more considered understanding of the proper and improper considerations of the culture of hunting in considering these questions.


 "Getting Pragmatic About Farm Animal Welfare"

Philosophical pragmatism presents itself as an alternative to those philosophical schools of thought that descended from empiricist/rationalist and materialist/idealist debates of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. These schools share a commitment to "foundational" strategies that seek to establish (if only by assumption) a small set of basic methodological and metaphysical propositions, then to build the edifice of knowledge and human practice upon them. In ethics, the most likely foundational strategies have been utilitarianism, on the one hand, or some form of rights theory, on the other. Utilitarianism has a fairly coherent history in the writings of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, each of whom saw ethics as a project of choosing the course of action that results in an optimal distribution of well-being (pleasure or pain, satisfaction or suffering) for all affected parties. Rights theory has a more complex line of descent that includes natural rights theorists such as Hugo Grotius and John Locke as well as Immanuel Kant’s analysis of duty and autonomy. Here the philosophical task is to identify constraints that must not be violated when framing one’s morally permissible choices.

            Animal ethics—the philosophical study of human duties to and responsibility for non-human animals—has a long history, but few would deny that it took a dramatic turn in the 1970’s and 1980’s largely as a result of work that extends the foundational strategies of utilitarianism and neo-Kantian rights theory. Peter Singer has become recognized as the prototypical example of the former approach, and Tom Regan of the latter. In what sense is there a pragmatic response to Singer and Regan?  The strategy of this paper will be to draw on pragmatism’s unrelenting attentiveness to real problems. The result is not so much an alternative to specific doctrines that utilitarians or rights theorists might propose, as it is an alternative way of understanding the philosophical agenda for animal ethics.  The author appeals to C. S. Peirce’s notion of philosophy as " a form of inquiry not different at its roots from ordinary problem solving, . . ."

Rather than an alternative to utilitarian or rights theorists, pragmatism offers a focus on actual issues.  The author describes two types of animal ethics theories.  Type I focuses on individual animals, on the question of moral considerability, and demonstrates no understanding of agriculture.  This type of animal ethics is problematic.  Type II animal ethics, in contrast, focuses on the needs of species, accepts the moral considerability of nonhumans animals, and starts with some understanding of the needs and interest of the agricultural industry.  The dominant animal rights theories were developed in response to the use of nonhuman animals in research labs.  These theories were then transferred to agriculture with no acknowledgement of the different relationship between nonhumans and their human caretakers in these two different contexts. 

Context matters to a pragmatist.  Part of the relevant context for understanding CAFOs (intensive, confined animal feeding operations) is the technological and economic systems within which they currently operate.  It is not just individual farmers who should or can be expected to bear the costs of animal welfare, but society as a whole.  As long as consumers demand cheap meat we can expect current practices to continue.  That is why this paper argues that while the choice to be a vegetarian can be defended in various ways, those interested in empowering animal welfare need to find ways to support and sustain the market for humanely produced animal products.  As pragmatists, we need to seek to understand the complex nature of these problems and recognize alternative methods for addressing them.   Pragmatism cannot and should not support a universal ethic of vegetarianism.


 "Pragmatism and the Production of Livestock"

            Humanity has been debating questions about the human use of nonhumans throughout the ages. For example, vegetarianism is nothing new.  Ancient scholars argued for various forms of vegetarianism on religious and philosophical grounds.  The Bible gives humans plants and fruits to eat first and then animals only after the fall; belief in the transmigration of souls meant you could be eating a friend or relative.  Health reasons have been cited from the beginning as well--eating meat was seen to slow the body and the mind.  Eating the suffering of another was also seen to harm character; further, the slaughtering of nonhuman animals was thought to harden us to pain and suffering leading to bad character and bad habits with regard to our treatment of all other living things, including humans. 

            The author argues that current practices of use and consumption of nonhumans are the result of humans’ sense of place in the world.  Humans have a history of separating into groups and believing that one group is better than an another.  Racism, classism, nationalism, sexism are all examples of this tendency.  As others have argued, speciesism is another, often overlooked, example of this.  There is a high cost to speciesism, however, and we cannot continue to overlook it.  Speciesism endangers our health and well being in many ways.  The current North American diet, high in meat, contributes to heart disease and cancer and it depletes water and topsoil while making the land toxic.  We need to realize that our disregard for the wellbeing of others endangers our own wellbeing.

It endangers us directly with regard to our health and with regard to our outlook and treatment of the environment on which nonhuman and human animals both depend.  It also endangers us indirectly with regard to the habits of objectifying and using other living beings as disposable objects. By ignoring our own connectedness to other living beings we risk destroying ourselves and other life through our failure to understand our interdependence.  On the other hand, when we do acknowledge this connectedness we usually combine it with objectification and subjugation, and so fall back into the same habits that endanger all life on this planet.  We must expand our understanding of community to include nonhuman animals in our social and moral universe. 

This paper seeks to use the pragmatic theory of inquiry to get a better understanding of why we have arrived at the current intensive methods of livestock production.  Asking what problems each shift in agriculture was supposed to "solve" and looking at some of the new problems that arose from these solutions the author argues that while pragmatism does not require vegetarianism it does require each of us to take a critical look at our society’s current agricultural practices and take responsibility for their effects.  In addition to presenting the more traditional arguments on why we should take the suffering of nonhuman animals seriously and so alter our agricultural practices, a brief summary of some ecofeminist perspectives are included.  Ecofeminism sees not just an ethical question here, but ontological and epistemological ones as well. Ecofeminists, in general, suggest we see fluid connections instead of rigid dichotomies.  This same shift is called for by a pragmatist approach as well.  Pragmatism goes beyond ecofeminism, though, by asking us to seek to understand how we arrived at our current situatedness, and then to use intelligent inquiry to address what is problematic.  Drawing on William James and John Dewey this paper presents a critical pragmatic take on human relatedness to nonhuman animals which results in a shift in understanding that sets us on a path that requires us to drastically alter our attitudes, habits, and behavior toward all animals. 

Altering habits intelligently requires having some understanding of how and why those habits arose in the first place.  So, after drawing a picture of our current habits with regard to the production of livestock the author sketches one possible pragmatic perspective on how we arrived where we are—each step along the way is an attempt to solve a social "problem."   Moving from an age old need to consume calories to survive the paper traces a series of problem/solution/problem/solution and argues that while our current system does deliver a high quantity of meat available at a low price, it is a costly and unsafe form of efficiency. With pragmatism one must examine one’s past, present and future situatedness carefully and seek ends-in-view which diminish harm and promote growth in a sustainable way.  So, while pragmatism does not require one to move to vegetarianism it may well require the end of factory forming practices.  It does, at the very least, demand being more reflective about one’s habits and more flexible in responding to emerging problems.