What is Harm? Guest Post

[Here's some follow-up on the exchange over what counts as harm to sentient creatures, courtesy of my colleague Bob Hockett]:

I’ve been following the recent exchange on the morality of veganism with interest, and thought I might offer my own two cents’ worth. Please pardon if the actual value of this contribution falls below stated par.

For the moment I’ve got three quick comments to offer, two of them fairly narrow in scope, the other a little bit broader. Perhaps there will be more to say later.

The first narrow comment is probably the one most worth making right now. It is that agreement appears very broad on the proposition that it is wrongful to inflict readily avoidable suffering on sentient creatures, and that this is so irrespective of the biological species that those creatures represent. Many who are vegetarian, vegan or veg-symps, in turn, observe among other things that the means by which we “produce” animal products for human (and pets’) consumption do inflict massive such suffering upon nonhuman (and for that matter even human) animals, suffering that could indeed be readily avoided. Were most of us who have tended to consume these products to know about this suffering, and the ways in which it is rendered inevitable by our principal means of “processing” animal products, these same people maintain in turn, we would many of us quickly come to constitute a very large potential market for alternatives. That market would in all likelihood be sufficiently large as to confer scale economies upon the production processes of the mentioned alternatives, and would accordingly afford means not only of ending the massive suffering being experienced even at this moment, but also of satisfying the earlier mentioned “readily avoidable” condition. We could, in other words, in the long run quite inexpensively end this suffering. Inasmuch as this is so, the current suffering is in an important sense gratuitous.

It seems to me that all of the above observations are empirical in character and readily corroborated or falsified. For my part I find many of them corroborated and none of them thus far falsified, and suspect that others who investigate them will find likewise. If that is so, then we already have here the makings of an overlapping consensus sufficient to prompt broad political action directed to bringing urgently needed change to the practices of certain very large industries (beef, poultry, fish, dairy, leather goods, you name it). People of Benthamite, Kantian, Aristotelian, and all manner of other persuasion seem to me very likely to agree that the massive and readily avoidable suffering now underway can and ought to be ended, and to vote and/or agitate accordingly, if only the fact of that suffering and its ready avoidability are brought to their attention.

My second narrow comment is in a certain sense for another day – the day that the just mentioned massive gratuitous suffering is ended and we have the luxury of arguing more precisely and at greater length the specific grounds of our objections to it. But since I have a conception both of myself as living a temporally extended life and of “us” as sharing a yet more extended such life, and since as an academic and all around loudmouth I can’t help but look forward and opine in advance, I’ll hazard a thought or two about the aforementioned more specific grounds.

There are of course multiple possible such grounds and so any reasonably full comment about them is in potential quite broad rather than narrow. I call my next comment narrow, however, because it is directed principally to the place, in the present context, of some arguments made by David Velleman (assuming I have not mangled them) in another context – arguments that certainly bear upon some though not all grounds upon which one might develop or affirm a more detailed ethic concerning the rights or interests of nonhuman creatures.

I take it that Velleman, much of whose work I should say at the outset that I generally admire, figures into the colloquy between Brian and Mike in virtue of observations he makes in the final few pages of his often illuminating article “Well-Being and Time.” (The article in full comprises about thirty pages of journal text.) The bearing of these pages on the present discussion is further drawn out by at least one other of Velleman’s articles of which I’m aware, namely his “Is Motivation Internal to Value?” So I’ll refer to both of these articles below, hoping that I have neither forgotten nor simply failed to notice the special bearing of any others of his articles and monographs on the present discussion.

Here is how Velleman as I understand him enters into the present discussion: He advances two related and, in their place, altogether plausible theses which, when conjoined to a particular proposition about certain nonhuman animals, initially appear to entail that these nonhuman animals’ lives are, qua lives, devoid of value.

The first thesis is a version of what I’ll here call, following Velleman and others, "internalism" about what is good for or valuable to a creature. (Usually the creatures in question are called "persons," and this proves to matter in a way that I’ll presently specify.) The thrust of this rendition of value internalism, as I understand it, is that what is good for or valuable to a creature must be grounded in some way in what the creature cares about or at least could care about on some plausibly idealized conception of that creature. (The importance of caring of course resonates with certain Frankfurtian themes, and the linkages between some conceptions of well-being and idealized caring is impressively explored in Griffin’s 1986 book, with which Velleman is of course thoroughly familiar.) The alternative to this rendition of value internalism, according to Velleman in “Is Motivation Internal?,” taking a cue from Peter Railton, would be an "intolerably alienated" conception of the creature's good. The putative good for the creature must accordingly be able in some way to "engage" that creature if it is to be taken to be a good "for," or valuable “to” that creature.

The second thesis, which I'll call "wholism" about the value of a life and “particularism” about the value of specific events occurring at particular moments of that life, builds and seems to me even to rest upon value internalism of the form just sketched. Succinctly stated, it is the claim that under at least one condition, which I'll presently specify, the value of a creature’s life cannot be composed of or decomposed into the values realized in particular moments of that life. (As in the case of the first thesis, Velleman speaks mainly of “persons” rather than “creatures” here. And once again, presently I’ll say why this is significant and why I generalize the thesis to the case of creatures.) There are accordingly at least two distinct and autonomous species of value associated with the living of a life: synchronic value associated with events that occur at particular moments of a life (as experienced by the liver of that life), and diachronic value (again as experienced by the liver of the life) associated with entire lives of a certain kind – the kind that meets the condition I am to specify. (The conceptual space between these two species of value might be analogized to that between lines or line segments on the one hand and points on the other in geometry. That “disconnect” is part of what brought such puzzlement to the project of “arithmetizing” analysis at the turn of the last century, via the then-seemingly requisite attempts to “build” lines out of points – puzzlement that culminated in the set-theoretic paradoxes.)

Now to that “condition” to which I have alluded: It is that the creature in question possess a conception – or, I suppose one could say in a more venerable idiom, a “representation” – of itself as living a temporally extended “life.” A creature’s meeting this condition not only figures into Velleman’s argument for wholism about the value of a life, but also seems to be at least part of what renders a creature a “person” in the first place for purposes both of the arguments that figure in “Is Motivation Internal?” and “Well-Being and Time.” So I’ll call this the “self-consciously life-living person” condition.

The reason that meeting this condition supports wholism about the value of a person’s life (at least to the liver of that life), I think I am correct in taking Velleman to argue, is that a person’s conception of her own life bears a particular kind of structure – a narratival, or "dramatic" structure. The structured character of a narratival life brings it under a distinct category of value, the wholist one. For in a narratival life it is not the constituent moments, but the “story” that various episodes as interrelated come ultimately to constitute, that yields the value associated with that life by the liver of that life. Within such structures it is not only the benefits and burdens accrued at particular moments, but, among other things, also the orders in which they accrue that bring success, failure, meaning, value, and so on to one’s life. This not unfamiliar take on value in human lives has struck me as plausible and indeed compelling for as long as I’ve been aware of it. But now what about cows?

The reason that wholism about the value of a certain kind of life – that of a person as philosophically understood – undercuts the value of a cow’s life, I take Velleman to argue, is that a cow (as Velleman admits to assuming) simply does not meet the self-consciously life-living person condition. It does not seem to be what Velleman would call a “person” at all. It “cannot conceive of itself as a persisting individual and consequently cannot conceive of itself as enjoying different benefits at different moments during its life,” as he puts it. In consequence, there is no narratival life or, therefore, “whole-life” value for a cow. There is at most only “particular-moment” value. (Those last two are my terms, so please don’t blame Velleman.)

Now, how to assess this argument as an argument to the effect that a cow’s life lacks value qua life? I’ve three reactions, the first of which is merely a reminder: The argument of course does not touch, nor is it meant to touch, the question of whether readily avoided animal suffering matters. So please bear in mind the remarks made above: We are presently discussing only the more particular grounds for deploring and seeking to end massive gratuitous animal suffering, in order that we might begin to work out views as to what more to do or avoid once we have ended the mentioned massive gratuitous suffering. Back, then, to the argument as seen in that light.

Now if I have accurately abbreviated the argument, then it of course depends partly upon the “no self-conscious life-living for cows” assumption. It also depends pretty clearly upon the first thesis that I mentioned – Velleman’s rendition of value internalism (as the second thesis itself – life-value wholism / moment-value particularism – looks to do). And Velleman is explicit about hewing to this rendition of value-internalism in considering the possible value of a cow’s life. “What the cow cannot conceive, it cannot care about,” he observes, “and so a cow cannot care about which sequences of momentary goods it enjoys.” The cow’s caring in this way will of course be relevant to the value of its life only insofar as Velleman’s rendition of value internalism is – forgive me – internal to the conception of value at stake. Is it internal to the conception of value we ought to be employing?

To his credit, Velleman considers several – including weaker – forms of value internalism, with a view to determining whether there might be any rendition that could authorize us to say that a cow might care about its life as distinguished from moments of its life. But in the end no such rendition of value internalism that Velleman considers proves stable. (As it happens I think he’s too quick about one of them, but I don’t want to rely on that so I’ll skip this large question for now.) So Velleman ultimately concludes that “we should refuse to combine” momentary benefits and burdens accruing to cows. Instead we should conclude that “a cow can fare well or ill only at particular moments.”

I believe it is open to us to contest the particular conception of faring well, tied to the species of value internalism at work in Velleman’s argument, upon which Velleman’s conclusion follows; and so I shall do in a moment. But first I want to say a couple of things about the no self-conscious life-living for cows assumption upon which the conclusion also (perhaps less problematically) rests.

I confess to not yet having arrived, or for that matter even having tried to arrive, at any firmly decided view on what manner of self-consciousness or life-consciousness a cow – or many other creatures – might have. And this is partly because the conception of value that I find apt in the present context – a conception quite distinct from Velleman’s – moots the question. I will say however that I am often quite struck by how blithe we sometimes can be in matter-of-factly attributing or denying this or that mental capacity to this or that nonhuman animal. I know that the attribution of this or that kind of mental representation or concept-possession to this or that creature is partly (though I think not wholly) a means of interpreting various movements in which we find the creature – including the human creature – engaged. And I know that there is therefore presumably less reason to attribute some forms of concept-possession, including self-concept-possession, to some creatures than to others. (I have of course assumed that the onus of proof is on the attributor in acknowledging this.) But this is only one of what I’ve a strong suspicion should be many considerations that would properly enter into more fully considered concept- and other capacity-attributions to human and nonhuman creatures alike. And it would be good to see much more reference to such considerations by claimants on all sides of these discussions, at least when they are relying on these attributions or denials. Sherry Colb, incidentally, has accumulated a wealth of information on these matters.

I should add that I have also heard and read sufficiently many denials of various forms of consciousness and other mental capacity to, for example, dogs, the attributions of which forms subsequently turn out to afford the apparently best means of explaining things that my own dog does, to have developed a certain skepticism about these glib denials. I have little doubt, for example, that Atticus, the dog in question, carries something like representations of self and other, and of temporal patterns and continuity, even though I cannot at the moment imagine what would tend to corroborate or falsify a proposition to the effect that he has a narratival sense of his own life in its temporal entirety. But enough of that for now, since again it is first a very large subject to which I cannot do justice in short (or perhaps even long) order, and second, not what I think to be the most decisively contestable feature of Velleman’s reflections as brought to bear on the case of nonhuman creatures. For that feature is, I think, the aptness of value internalism as described by Velleman to the case in question.

Now the kind of “internality” to which one alludes in speaking of the forms of value internalism at work in Velleman’s argument is, I take it, that suggested by such locutions as “the internal point of view.” Value internalism is, if so, a view pursuant to which something is valuable “to” something else only if that something else is itself able, as a creature with affect, to value that thing. But there is of course nothing that requires us to restrict our conception of value to any rendition of internalism as thus understood – or, therefore, to elide without comment from a cow’s life’s not being valued qua temporally extended narratival life by the cow, to the cow’s life’s being devoid of value, simplicitur.

I think that “Well-Being and Time” is perhaps insufficiently attentive for present purposes, in its last few pages – which after all appear to figure as a sort of afterthought to the principal concerns that occupy the first twenty-six pages – to questions of appropriate scope in connection with that to which value is expected to be internal (or is it that which is expected to be internal to value?). It is perfectly intelligible, for example, to say that certain viral infections are bad “for” lizards or wasps, or that vaccinations are good “for” a dog, and that they are in that sense disvaluable or valuable “to” those creatures – by being thus to their natural lives – even when those creatures are not themselves capable from their internal points of view of “disvaluing” or “valuing” the burdens or benefits in question. If there is a conception of a well-formed, properly functioning, healthy or flourishing instance of a particular life form or other type, then there is a conception of what is good for or valuable to the things of that type – a conception that is internal to the type even if not to the consciousness of the instances of that type.

Now the capacity to carry a representation of one’s own narrativally lived life, and the possession of some form of autonomy in conceiving one’s own articulated conception of the good life, and finally, a consequent capacity to “care” about things with a view in particular to their contributions to or detractions from one’s well-lived narratival life, seem pretty clearly to be internal to that form of life known as (philosophical) “personhood.” And for that reason it is hardly surprising – it is altogether fitting – that Velleman’s articles referenced above, which as noted before concern themselves from their outsets with “persons” and frame themselves accordingly, would make use of a species of value internalism to which Frankfurtian care or Railtonian engageability is itself internal – a species of value bound up with the “internal point of view” of a conscious individual. And so those of us who are respectful of persons qua persons will tend to view the value simplicitur or objective value of a life, and the subjective valuation of that life by its liver, as somewhere near full overlap in this, personal, case. At least that will be so insofar as we eschew, as most liberal political philosophers nowadays do, perfectionism of Hurka’s variety. But where the ambit of a creature’s self-awareness or self-representation (if any) falls shorter of the ambit of its full natural life than we find in the case of the (philosophical) person, it seems to me that we cannot legitimately restrict the value of the creature’s life to its own capacity to value that life – at least not without further argument. For the internality involved in value’s being internal can in these cases be plausibly characterized as internality to the species or life form itself about whose instances we are speaking.

Now for my own part, I am inclined to say that value inheres in lives qua lives, narrativally self-represented or otherwise, and that the tendency of most living things to struggle to hold onto their lives is simply one indicator of this. I recognize that there is perhaps something vaguely Platonist (not to say Aristotelian, more on which in a moment) about thinking this way. But I’m not convinced that I’m ultimately any more Plationistic than is, in effect, Velleman. For, after all, even if a person’s fully articulated, internally and autonomously projected lifeplan were cut short by his death in his sleep, and he was not in any sense any longer capable of being aware of the fact, there would be no loss of value, to the now unknowing former-liver, occasioned by the failure of his lifeplan to be realized, it seems to me, unless the conception of value at work in a claim to the contrary was independent of ongoing actual valuation by the life-planner. (I’m of course bracketing third-party valuing both here and in the case of nonhuman creatures.)

So I am going to recommend that we work with a conception of value to which I believe even Velleman himself is at bottom committed. This conception has it that a life is valuable even independently of the capacity of its liver to value it as a life of some more or less specified temporal duration. It is a conception with which I suspect most of us work at least intuitively. And for reasons just indicated I do not believe anything Velleman says undercuts this conception; indeed quite the contrary. I hasten to add, before I proceed to my last comment, that none of this is to say that the values of particular nonhuman creatures’ lives cannot be over-ridden by other values, any more than the value of a self-consciously lived life to its (representative, unimpaired) human liver cannot be over-ridden. It is only to deny the claim that they are altogether devoid of value qua lives as distinguished from moments of lives. It is to claim that all living things are the beneficiaries of defeasible obligations, on the part of those of us who examine our lives with a view to acting upon judgments of value, not to destroy them cavalierly – and that the real question is therefore not whether there are such defeasible obligations, but the conditions under which they are legitimately defeated.

Now, I recognize that there is probably something not only Platonic, but also Aristotelian in spirit in the view I have just begun trying to articulate. Indeed, I would seem to be committing myself to the value of more lives than those even of animals, and perhaps even to the value of “nature” itself. And this takes me to my third and final comment for now.

I recall being quite struck, as a child, by the particular form of disgust – a disgust tinged with sorrow and worry – that I experienced when another child once employed the dead body of a fish as a sort of “ball” of the kind associated with a particular game. I was also quite struck by the strangely lurid, deranged sort of laughter into which he fell as he did so, as though even he was aware at the back of his consciousness that there was something deeply disordered about what he was doing, and was in a sense worried about it. The fish, as I say, was apparently already dead, and so presumably well beyond even momentary experience. Yet it somehow felt as though this creature was in a certain sense being wronged by the child who thus kicked it around, and that the child was in a certain sense wronging himself and others in thus wronging the fish. The fish and the child and perhaps others, or the world of which they were part, or perhaps all of the above, seemed to be treated with a profound disrespect in this happening – desecrated, as it were.

This particular perception of wrong I experienced also seems to me somehow continuous with that which I find myself strongly inclined to attribute to the gratuitous despoliation of anthills and natural environments, and to the cavalier killing of creatures – even hypothetically painless such killing. It seems even to be part of the ground of my disgust with gratuitously inflicted pain itself. Why? I think it has something to do with the awe, the respect, the joyful astonishment that the sheer beauty and complexity of all living things, especially conscious such things, tends to inspire. Even watching an ant colony feels like watching a kind of miracle, let alone squirrels or kittens at play. A fish is so marvelously, as it were painstakingly designed, all in a manner that suits it to flourish in the environment it inhabits, that it is disgusting and seems profoundly wrongful when someone kicks it around like a ball. You needn’t be a creationist or “intelligent design” advocate to find a life and the form it instantiates wonderful, or to find a quite poignant species of value associated with it that does not feel as though it has to have anything to do with your “needs,” y our “interests,” or even your care – even though it happen to speak to some such need, or that you understandably care about it.

It has sometimes been said that ethics and aesthetics are “one,” or that they are at any rate akin. Exceedingly good deeds are often found “beautiful” gestures, justice seems bound up with symmetry (the English word “fair” was used first, I believe, of beautiful faces), and virtues are facets of well crafted characters. I seem also to recall that it has been said, I think by Kant, that the good will is in some other manner associated with a deep sense of “Achtung” – a sort of reverent attention. (It is wonderful that the French counterpart, “attention,” can in the imperative mood mean both attention and waiting. He who says “attendez” says “wait, look!”) I am tempted to say that the value of any creature’s – including the human creature’s – life, and perhaps even part of the profound disvalue of such creatures’ needless sufferings, is deeply rooted in whatever it is that seems so often to elicit this sense of respect from us. Perhaps it is the same ground as that which elicits that “wonder” with which Aristotle said philosophy begins. The faculties of wonder, of respect, and openness to goodness, beauty, and life’s value all seem to me faces of one faculty.

I don’t know yet whether this faculty, when heeded in moments of silent attention, must prompt all to attempt to go vegan, even if it prompts me a growing number of others in that direction. Nor do I know whether it will prompt all, as it seems to be prompting me and as it seems to have prompted others, notably the Australian logician Richard Routley, to make common cause with the “Deep Green” movement. (I do know it will likely not lead me to change my name to “Sylvan,” as Routley did!) But I suspect it will prompt most who will stop for a moment and listen, to be deeply respectful of all living creatures. And I’m sure it will prompt all who take time to learn what we’re doing to millions of nonhuman creatures, to agree this is not duly respectful – just as it is not humane.

Thanks for the exchange and thanks for listening. Maybe more later.

Posted on behalf of Bob Hockett