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Obama's Horserace Stimulus

A constant complaint during U.S. political campaigns is that the media doesn't cover the issues. They just obsess over the horserace, the strategy, how seven-figure-salary elites who have never had an original thought in their lives imagine "average Americans" will react to the latest gaffe. Instead of telling us about how candidate A's environmental proposal will affect our energy system, they tell us how it will affect the candidate's chances among coal-mining region voters.

The catch here is that issue coverage has to treat candidates' statements as communicative speech acts -- that is, it has to treat them as revealing a belief held by the speaker and aiming to persuade others to accept that belief as true. The alternative is for speech acts to be strategic -- aiming to produce some reaction in the hearer in a cause-and-effect manner. The trick with strategic speech acts is that they're parasitic on communicative ones. You can usually only cause certain effects in listeners if they (mistakenly) take your statements as expressing some sort of sincere substance.

Barack Obama has done a good job of bursting the illusion that we can ever assume campaign trail speech to be communicative. He's a smooth talker, so he fooled a lot of people, including myself. For example, when I cast my vote in November, I had been persuaded by his comments that he wanted to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Sucker. It's now abundantly clear that he does not. His claim to be a "fierce advocate" for LGBT issues was purely strategic, intended to elicit donations and votes from people who care about those issues, not communicate anything about his beliefs or intentions on the issue. The audacity involved in this kind of big-scale strategic speech doesn't come easily to most people, but it can become a way of life for those who can pull it off. Thus, to continue our example, Obama can continue to make sincere-sounding promises about his commitment to repealing DADT to the face of a serviceman who he's court-martialing for being gay.

Once you've lost the trust that candidates' speech acts are communicative, trying to cover the issues becomes a snipe hunt. We could get a great understanding of the issues, but it would do us no good in deciding how to vote. So all that's left is horserace coverage.


Double-Barreled Articles and Some Problems With Constructivism

There's a tendency in political ecology and related work in geography and anthropology to write double-barreled articles. A double-barreled article is one that (on the analogy of a double-barreled question on a survey) packs together two somewhat distinct components -- a (usually radical) philosophical/social-theoretic argument, and a (usually interesting) empirical case study. Michael Watts' seminal "On the Poverty of Theory" chapter remains the best example, but I was prompted to write this post by a recent article in American Anthropologist by Mario Blaeser. I focus on Blaeser's article here for the convenience of having a running example, not because his article is a uniquely bad instance of this phenomenon (indeed, Blaeser's article was quite interesting and thought-provoking).

Blaeser's case study has to do with a failed sustainable hunting initiative in Paraguay. After several years of strict hunting bans, the Yshiro people, the Paraguayan government, and an interested NGO thought they had worked out a plan to re-open hunting. But the government soon called the project off, citing the failure of Yshiro hunters to follow the conservation rules. The cause of the problem, Blaeser shows, had to do with the clash between the conservationist ontology and the Yshiro one. According to the Western conservationists on the government's side, nature consists of organisms reproducing themselves, so if they are overhunted there will be fewer babies born and the species will go exitinct. According to the Yshiro, however, individual animals are provided to the people by "bahluts," a class of powerful beings, as part of a network of reciprocity involving ritual responsibilities and intra-human social justice (excessive hunting pressure, crucially, is not a failure of reciprocity that could lead to a reduced supply of animals*). The government negotiators thought they were conceding the Yshiro demands for social justice within the program as a way of stabilizing a project that was basically about conserving wildlife by reducing hunting pressure, whereas the Yshiro thought they were conceding the government's pointless and perhaps ulterior-motivated demands for reduced hunting pressure in order to establish full social reciprocity within their community. Once the program was in place, the Yshiro began breaking the letter of the conservation law, since they never bought into its ontological premises. The government, meanwhile, not realizing there could be any question as to its ontological premises, interpreted the Yshiro rule-breaking as a threat to the environment.

Blaeser's philosophical/social-theoretic argument has to do with the contrast between the approaches he labels "multiculturalism" and "political ontology." Multiculturalism holds that cultural differences consist in differing interpretations of a single reality -- some of which may be demonstrably erroneous, but most of which can provide enriching additional perspectives. Political ontology, on the other hand, holds that cultural differences involve different realities, which he usually refers to as "ontologies." There's some slipperiness in the term ontology -- it can refer either to what things actually exist (e.g. reproducing animal populations or bahluts), or to a theory about what things exist**. Relying on the latter definition is consistent with multiculturalism. Blaeser wants to insist we can't understand the case study or similar situations without relying on the former, that is, without saying that the government and Yshiro have not just different worldviews but that they have, and make, different worlds. In some unspecified way, the Yshiro don't just construct an idea of bahluts, they construct a world in which bahluts really exist -- and similarly for the government's modernist ecology. Blaeser makes liberal use of Bruno Latour's term "factish," a portmanteau of "fact" and "fetish" meant to indicate a fact that is made to exist by the process of discovering it, as opposed to a regular fact taken to pre-exist the discovery process or a fetish that's purely imagined.

What makes this article double-barreled is that the very interesting case study of the failed hunting program can be understood perfectly well in terms of different worldviews. Because what happened was that putting the program into practice revealed that the government and Yshiro had different ideas about the prey and how to hunt them, and both sides realized that the stated plan didn't accomplish what they had thought it would. The ontology-as-what-actually-exists -- whether singular but interpreted differently (multiculturalism) or multiple (political ontology) -- plays little role, as we're not told (and probably couldn't be, given the brevity of the program) what happens to the animals. Contrast this with case studies in which the world out there really does play a role. I have read numerous articles in which it was shown how people's worldviews led to practices that modified the world to match it (or modified it to match less, setting them up for a nasty surprise -- Michael Thompson has written a very interesting, but I fear highly stylized, account of how environmental management among Alpine pastoralists causes the environment to change which in turn prompts a change in management strategy, all leading the environment and the managers' ideas of it to cycle through the four quadrants of cultural theory). What would have made this case study a real demonstration of political ontology, and eliminated the double-barreled nature of it, would have been if the failure of the program was in some way due to each side running up against the actual things posited by the other's ontological theory -- government scientists coming upon some bahluts, or Yshiro hunters finding that heavy hunting pressure led to a drop in animals despite maintenance of social and ritual reciprocity. The failure to find some actual-ontological clash doesn't disprove political ontology, it just makes the case study beside the point of the multiculturalism-political ontology argument. (Ironically, the reason most political ecologists seem to turn to Latour is that they believe that unlike postmodernism/poststructuralism, his actor-network theory allows nature/ontology to "talk back" and influence people's constructions in this way.)

Having gone over the double-barreledness of Blaeser's article, I have a few points to raise about his philosophical/social-theoretic claims. Again, I am focusing on this article as a convenient example of some common constructivist moves, not as a particularly egregious offender.

One argument that Blaeser makes in favor of political ontology is that multiculturalism is dependent on a modernist ontology -- specifically, the ability to separate the single actual-ontology from the multiple ontological theories rests on the nature-culture dichotomy. The Yshiro, who do not have that dichotomy as part of their ontology, would thus not be able to be multiculturalists. But Blaeser seems to confuse two related distinctions -- nature-culture, and signified-signifier. The latter distinction, between an actual thing and interpretations of it, is what's being used in multiculturalism. After all, we could apply a multiculturalist analysis to differing perspectives on a cultural object -- say, the institution of government, or the text of Blaeser's article. Blaeser is correct that the Yshiro would deny the nature-culture divide, since they see the world as a network incorporating humans, bahluts, animals, and all kinds of other stuff (as opposed to the conservationists' separation between animals doing their thing and hunters as agents acting on them). But there is nothing in Blaeser's description of Yshiro ontology to suggest they would deny the signified-signifier divide -- and indeed, there is a counterexample, in an anecdote he tells about an Yshiro friend who concludes that the conservationists are simply wrong about the actual workings of animal populations and speculates on what their real ulterior motives must be since they couldn't honestly hold that ridiculous interpretation of reality.

Blaeser goes on to argue that multiculturalism is oppressive. In order to maintain the idea that there is a single world and different ontological theories are just different perspectives on the same thing, multiculturalists have to set "common sense" boundaries on what types of ontologies can be accepted. Too weird of an ontological component (e.g. the existence of bahluts) has to be denied and/or ignored, and the remainder of the ontology (e.g. the importance of social reciprocity) is reshaped to fit within the bounds.

My first concern with the "multiculturalism is oppressive" thesis is that the oppressiveness he notes -- which consists in the summary, disrespectful dismissal of ontological components that are too challenging to one's own views -- can be recognized and accommodated within the multicultural framework. A multiculturalist can recognize the ethnocentric narrowing of his or her boundaries of common sense, and resolve to work harder to expand them and be willing to take on more divergent ontologies and work out how they all can apply to the same reality.

Second, Blaeser falls into a common trap of strong constructivist arguments. The reality/signified -- here, animals and their actual reproductive process, whatever that is -- drop out of the analysis, and do not appear to play a role or have a life of their own beyond the process of being constructed by people. This means we lose sight of any sort of shared problem situation that people find themselves in. And therefore, we're left with no other way for divergent ontologies to interact with each other than plays of oppressive power, marginalizing and bullying rather than persuading and demonstrating. The idea of examining the conservationist and Yshiro ontologies for their relative usefulness in guiding responses to the various problems that the actors have -- which would seem to me to be the respectful approach -- is nowhere to be seen. Instead the main options appear to be (though Blaeser is vague on his own counter-proposal to multiculturalism and leaves much for the future work he hopes he inspired) oppressive crushing of one ontology, or the unilateral giving up of a (false?) ontology by adherents of modernism.

(This post is already quite long, so I'll simply note for my own reference that this post is in part an exercise in preparation for an academic piece I'd like to do exploring the currently popular approaches to human-environment studies -- positivist, Marxist, poststructuralist, and increasingly now actor-network -- and show how their problems can be resolved through ideas drawn from Jane Addams, John Dewey, and the rest of American pragmatism. Pragmatism offers strategies for reconciling divergent ontologies, criteria for evaluating clashing claims, and an ethical approach centered on the idea of shared problem situations. Interestingly in this context, pragmatism's roots appear to lie in part in American Indian thought and its response to European colonialism.)

*This general sort of framework -- prey animals are provided in response to maintenance of reciprocity and social obligations, while overhunting as such cannot damage the resource base -- is held by some other American Indian cultures as well, some as far away as Canada.

**Throughout this post, when I don't modify "ontology" with "theory" or "actual," I'm being deliberately noncommittal between the two meanings.


Robert Kaplan and the Revenge of Illogic

I've been meaning for a while to write something about Robert Kaplan's attempt to rehabilitate Halford Mackinder's geographical determinism. Having finally had time to read it, "attempt" may be too kind a word.

Kaplan's main thesis is that geography -- by which he says he means physical features of mountains and seas and so on, though he from time to time seems to flip over into the distribution of cultural and religious groupings -- has a major impact on global politics and history. That is a claim that is on one hand too obvious to deny and on the other too vague to be of any use. What matters is the specific theses one advances as to how geography makes a difference.

Digging through Kaplan's meanderings on the impending anarchy in Eurasia and his condemnation of a vague idealist foreign policy foil, there's really not much there in terms of specific theses about the influence of geography on global politics. What is there is ad hoc, unsupported, and in some cases clearly false.

Mackinder's most famous thesis, which Kaplan endorses, is the idea that central Asia and Siberia -- controlled since Mackinder's time by the Russian Empire, the USSR, and now Russia and the post-Soviet central Asian states -- is the "pivot" of world history, control of which would ensure control of the world barring some very close containment by other powers. Kaplan takes this to have been vindicated by the rise of the Soviet Union. But the USSR was only the second superpower (after the influential but short-lived Mongols) to occupy that territory. At other points in history, the world's dominant political and economic power has been located in Mesopotamia, Persia, China (for a good long time), Western Europe, and North America. And it's not clear how Soviet control of central Asia was critical to its superpowerdom -- its demographic and economic core was in Western Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Similarly, Kaplan argues that China could become a superpower by conquering Siberia, but never explains why, since China's economic heartland is along its east coast.

Kaplan credits Mackinder with prescience for foreseeing the two World Wars when he states that with the completion of European colonialism, the world would be full and thus these powers would turn against each other. But this is a rather stupid idea even for Mackinder's time -- European powers had been fighting each other for control of Europe, and for control of particular colonial territories, for hundreds of years. Napoleon's proto-world-war, for example, was hardly "dissipated" by the possibility of trying to conquer more colonies rather than attacking Germany, Italy, etc. Indeed, there's a good (geographical!) argument to be made that the availability of new lands to colonize intensified conflict among the colonial powers.

Kaplan occasionally does the work of critique himself. One of his clearer geographical claims is this: "The ultimate land-based empire, with few natural barriers against invasion, Russia would know forevermore what it was like to be brutally conquered. As a result, it would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory." But in the very next paragraph, he runs through some of Mackinder's thoughts on Western Europe's colonial expansion. A set of empires more "obsessed with expanding and holding territory" could hardly be found than the eminently sea-based ones of Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and France. Kaplan then drops the idea that geography determines who will seek an empire, and now claims geography determines whether these empire-seekers will be democratic or authoritarian: "the sea, beyond the cosmopolitan influences it bestows by virtue of access to distant harbors, provides the inviolate border security that democracy needs to take root." Tell that to nearly-land-locked, yet somehow still democratic, Germany and Switzerland. (What about the Nazis? Well, Italy and Spain, with their rational borders along seas and mountains, both went through periods of fascism as well.) Or, for that matter, tell it to the United States and Canada, which managed to become two of the world's leading democracies despite their long and irrational border. Nor, for that matter, has being an island always staved off authoritarianism in countries like Cuba, Haiti, Indonesia, or the Philippines. And South Korea managed to become a democracy with its capital separated only by a thin, geographically illogical border from one of the most threatening regimes in the world.

Kaplan goes on to argue that population growth and technological advances since Mackinder's time have made all of Asia a single pivot area (an "organic whole"). It's not clear what he means by this. Certainly not that it has become a single political-geographical unit, since the rest of the article is spent detailing the geographical and political fragmentation of Asia. Nor does he really explain the implications of this. At this point Mackinder's pivot thesis drops out of the article, and we get to more specific small-scale evaluations of geography's effects on particular places, all of it driven by his longstanding preoccupation with the idea of teeming, crowded hordes of irrational people.

Kaplan takes us on a tour of conflict-prone "shatter zones" located around the rim of Mackinder's pivot area. The Asian rim, at least -- Europe, despite sharing all of the geographical characteristics he lists for the other rim areas, and despite having been the scene of intense conflict until just half a century ago, is curiously absent.

Kaplan predicts imminent anarchy for Bangladesh, in large part because of its geographically irrational border -- there are no mountain ranges or great rivers separating India and Bangladesh, so the Bangladeshi government can't keep its people under control. But it's not as if Bangladesh was doing awesome during and immediately after British colonial rule, when the national borders corresponded more closely to natural ones -- the country was split off from India because of a major cultural gap between Hindus and Muslims that existed despite the lack of physical barriers. (The intermixing of Hindus and Muslims, plus a variety of smaller religions, in the Indian subcontinent also defies Kaplan/Mackinder's earlier easy claim that there's a neat geographical correspondence between the four heartland-ringing regions (Europe, the Middle East, India, and China) and their respective faiths (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and supposedly Buddhism).

Kaplan is on somewhat firmer -- though also extremely well-trod -- ground as he moves westward and notes that many of the borders of countries were drawn by colonial powers with little regard to the preexisting natural or cultural geography of the area. But his discussion is haunted by the idea that population density and scarce resources will inevitably create conflict, and that that conflict will spill over into other areas. This "resource wars" thesis is not tenable as a simple generalization -- resource scarcity can lead to cooperation, resource abundance can lead to conflict, and I don't see why conflict within Yemen over water rights would threaten Saudi Arabia, as Kaplan claims. The links among population, resources, culture, politics, and conflict deserve detailed empirical study, not Kaplan's breezy certainty about the coming anarchy.

Finally, we reach Iran. Kaplan says that Iran is relatively topographically unified, and has been politically unified for most of history in the form of the various Persian empires, and that it's politically pivotal because it sits at the juncture of various important trade routes. I'll grant all that. Kaplan describes Iran's various geopolitical schemes, such as supplying Hezbollah, which he says are made possible by its logical boundaries. But just a few pages ago, he had been describing similar machinations by both India (one of his prime examples of a state with illogical boundaries) and China (whose boundary logic is not assessed in the article). Kaplan concludes: "If the geographic logic of Iranian expansion sounds eerily similar to that of Russian expansion in Mackinder’s original telling, it is." The two share a logic, yes -- but it's hardly eerie, since it's the same logic used by every major world power, including the United States (how many ideologically congenial militias did we fund in Latin America?).

Kaplan then advises a strategy of containment for Iran similar to that used against Russia. Russia, we should recall, does not have particularly logical boundaries. Containment certainly makes sense as a geopolitical strategy for dealing with a hostile country, but I don't see how Iran's logically-bounded geography determines the choice of containment as opposed to, presumably, invasion and regime change.

The primary critical response to Kaplan, I imagine, will be to urge the virtues of idealism (in both the moral and "ideas shape history" senses) and free will against his materialistic determinism. While there's something to those counterclaims, I think it's important as well to highlight that even though he's right in a general sense to say geography matters, he's wrong in the specific predictions he tries to make from geographical premises. Kaplan is the evolutionary psychology of geography -- he takes an undoubtedly true but extremely vague premise ("geography affects history" vs "the mind has evolved"), and applies it in a ad hoc and post hoc fashion to put a stamp of explanation on various events, without much more coherence to the resulting claims than that given by his political preoccupations.

The Implausibility of Watchmen

I recently read Watchmen, and while it was quite enjoyable, I found the ending implausible. (I'm not much of a movie person, so I doubt I'll see the film, though from what my wife says, I think much of my concerns would apply to the movie's somewhat different ending as well.)

[Spoilers follow]

I know, I know -- a graphic novel that has a radioactive superman, a psychic alien monster, and a three-term President Nixon, and I'm complaining that it's implausible? But Watchmen's appeal is supposed to be its gritty social realism. And what I find implausible about the ending was on a sociological level.

At the end of the novel, we learn that Adrian Veidt -- the alleged smartest man in the world -- has carried out an elaborate plot to bring about world peace. The centerpiece of this plan is teleporting a psychic "alien" into New York City. The threat posed by this creature, Veidt says, will unite the world against it, thus eliminating the Cold War arms race and threat of nuclear annihilation. All of the characters appear to believe this will work -- even Rorschach, who feels bound to expose the plot despite its success. And there's not much left of the book's intended moral dilemma if the plan doesn't work.

It's true that there's a "unite in the face of a common enemy" effect. So it's believable that the appearance of the alien would have caused the Soviet Union to suspend its invasions of central and south Asia. That alone isn't much credit to Veidt, since he caused those invasions in the first place by provoking Dr. Manhattan -- source of the US's deterrent power -- to leave for Mars.

The problem is that the "unite in the face of a common enemy" effect doesn't last much longer than the very immediate threat posed by the common enemy. Once the imminent danger is gone, the parties who had united begin to squabble over their response to the threat, and recall their past grievances with each other. Take, for example, what happened in the US after the September 11 attacks (obviously the writers of Watchmen wouldn't have known about this particular example in the mid-1980s). Immediately after the attacks, Americans -- and indeed, most of the world -- united in opposition to al-Qaida. But as time went on, with no more attacks on US soil, the old divisions between liberals and conservatives began to open up again. There was enough residual unity to help put Bush over the line in the 2004 election -- but by 2006, the administration's handling of the al-Qaida threat had become a net political liability. The US became as deeply polarized over terrorism as it had been over anything pre-9/11. And it's not as if al-Qaida has gone away or has stopped wanting to attack the US. But when the attacks are not in immediate memory, their ability to create unity is much more attenuated.

Thus, for Veidt's plan to work, he would have to teleport another alien into a major city every year or two in order to keep the US and USSR focused on the alien threat rather than attacking each other. There's no indication in the book that he has the means or intention to do so. Nor does the cost of his plan look so plausibly acceptable when he has to repeat the stunt multiple times.

But even if Veidt's plan worked to end the Cold War, I find it implausible that it would achieve his underlying goals. Veidt isn't just concerned about Americans and Russians blowing each other up. He's concerned about the wider ramifications of militarization, such as the way it sucks up resources that could better be used for social programs and the environmental effects of relying on nuclear technology.

I don't see any way that the response to the threat of alien invasion would be to beat swords into plowshares and implement single-payer health care. Instead, the response would be to beat plowshares into swords and raid health care budgets for military funding. The threat of alien invasion demands more militarization, a cooperative ramping-up of arms, space, and intelligence programs by both superpowers in order to have the capability to fight back. (An alien invasion could result in demilitarization if the aliens could show up and make demands that humans disarm -- but Veidt's creature is dead on arrival, and all the Watchmen are convinced that the plan would be ruined if Veidt's role, and hence his demand for disarmament, were ever to become known.)


Both sides do it

Having torn into an anti-animal-rights article a few posts down, I should note that pro-animal-rights authors are hardly free from fuzzy thinking and unoriginal arguments. Such is the effort by Jan Deckers (subscription req.) in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Deckers' theme is to deny that vegans are "sentimental" by showing that there are good reasons to hold the vegan position. The reasons he surveys are well-known ones -- harm to human and environmental health, causing pain to animals, and the wrongness of killing animals. On the first point he cites the most up-to-date research in support, but adds nothing new philosophically. On the second, he plays with some nuance that he feels Peter Singer misses, but again there's no major new claims there. The abstract would have us believe that his challenge to Tom Regan's views on the third point is a major contribution of the article. Unfortunately, his challenge consists largely of a perfunctory citation of Whitehead to call into question Regan's assumption that plants lack awareness. I'd like to argue against this view, since what little Whiteheadian philosophy I've come across has always struck me as unfounded speculation and playing up the way its conclusions sound more radical than they really are. But Deckers barely explains what Whitehead says, much less why he says it. And in any event, the practical implications are dulled by Deckers' supposition that animals have a stronger dislike for death than plants and thus it's still reasonable to be more concerned about killing the former.

Another too-brief bit in Deckers' article is his exploration of why many people suppress their feelings of sympathy for animals. I think it would be interesting and useful to read a detailed ethnographic study of how children's feelings toward animals develop, and how they incorporate understandings of pets vs wild animals vs food animals vs pests and any cognitive dissonance between categories, and how this manifests differently in different places and cultures (perhaps such a study has been written and I just haven't run across it). Unfortunately, Deckers' exploration consists mostly of briefly recalling how he and another author were urged, against their inclinations, to kill animals to prove they were real men. This exploration is overhung by a not-quite-stated presumption that children naturally see the wrongness of killing animals but are twisted by the patriarchy etc. This approach seems to be to be both based on a psychologically/anthropologically false romanticism, as well as highly ineffective at swaying anyone who doesn't already think non-vegans are morally corrupt.


The moral basis of legality

Amanda Marcotte approvingly cites a claim by maha that's quite popular among liberals:

the purpose of law is to maintain conditions that allow civilizations and societies to exist and function, not to enforce morality.

I agree with the implication that while morality and (ideal) legality overlap, there are things that are illegal but not immoral and things which are immoral but not illegal, and with the substantive point of Marcotte and maha's posts that abortion should be considered both moral and legal. But I think the connection between morality and legality is closer than the standard liberal view lets on.

By maha's standard, I don't see any way to justify a legal rule about abortion -- the topic of the post -- one way or the other without bringing in morality. Neither allowing abortions under all circumstances, nor banning all abortions, nor anything in between strikes me as likely to cause societal collapse. Indeed, we have examples of societies with various policies on abortion, and none of them seem poised to collapse into anarchy or extinction as a result of how accessible abortion is. (It is in one sense unfortunate that societies are capable of continuing to exist indefinitely despite enormous grinding injustices, since that means survival of the fittest hasn't pushed us quicker toward social justice.) So then we have to ask about "functioning." If functioning is to mean anything more than "managing to continue to exist," it requires some sort of ideal of what a well-functioning society looks like. But deciding on any such ideal is necessarily a *moral* question. A society in which abortion is banned is functioning quite well if you think that one of the important things a society should accomplish is to maintain gender roles that subordinate women to men. But it functions quite poorly if you think that what a society is for is to enable its members to pursue happiness on an equal basis. Neither of these ideals is the "real" meaning of social functioning, and it would be a fallacious essentializing reification to claim so. So the only way to choose between them is to make moral arguments, which hold that freedom is a more valuable way of organizing human interactions than adherence to gender roles or vice-versa. (I'm being noncommittal on the substantive questions for the sake of focusing on my argument, but my position is not an inherently relativist one -- I think there are good reasons that freedom really is better, and that enforcement of gender roles is a bad moral position.)

Law and morality are not identical. Many things that are immoral would be too impossible, inefficient, abuse-prone, or unintended-consequence-producing to outlaw. And some things that are moral should nonetheless be illegal because it's necessary, and costs little enough, in order to enable enforcement of illegal-immoral acts. But the law still has an unavoidable moral basis.

(I would speculate that the appeal of the strict separation between morality and legality is a legacy of Christianity. Christianity has traditionally encouraged a view of morality as arbitrary rules. So when some law has a deeper justification -- e.g. "it promotes the pursuit of happiness," as opposed to "because I/God said so!" -- it seems like we're no longer talking about morality.)

Sloppy thinking on animal rights

I've written before that philosophical arguments against animal rights* strike me as surprisingly weak, putting a fancy-sounding veneer on a basic refusal to take the idea of strong moral status for animals seriously. Richard L. Cupp's recent article is no exception.

Before I get to the negative part, I will say that Cupp makes an effective argument against animal rights proponents using corporate personhood and the personhood of ships to show that the law can easily extend personhood beyond individual adult humans, and thus to animals. In brief, he points out that all theories defending corporate and ship personhood ultimately rest on defending the interests of individual adult humans (e.g. corporate shareholders or those who wish to sue a company or ship for harms done by it). If the article had focused on this point, I would have been happy.

However, Cupp goes on to try to rebut the argument from marginal cases, which holds that infants and mentally impaired adults are in the same boat as animals according to any standard of personhood (aside from raw species favoritism) and thus animals deserve the same rights as these non-paradigmatic humans. In passing, he references the argument that such animal-human comparisons are unhelpful because they are detrimental to, and attempt to appropriate the still-shaky victories of, other progressives -- an argument I think has merit. But his real interest is in addressing the human-animal comparisons on their own terms by showing that animals and non-paradigmatic humans are not in fact analogous.

To do so, he rattles off the standard humanist arguments -- infants and mentally impaired humans are still humans, and only moral agents or those similar to them (by some poorly defined standard of similarity that places heavy emphasis on species membership) can be moral patients because morality is based on a social contract. My problem here is not just that I think these arguments are wrong, it's that he barely acknowledges that anyone has considered or tried to rebut them. Countless pages have been written by animal rights theorists rebutting these contractualist arguments. Maybe they were all making philosophical mistakes. But if you want to write an anti-animal rights philosophy article in 2009, you have to at least show that you recognize those counter-arguments have been made, and preferably address and rebut them. His reliance on standard, pre-animal-rights-movement contractualist arguments is quite at odds with the paper's title's claim to be going "beyond animal rights."

Cupp attempts to give some justification for taking this contractualist approach by pointing out that this view is widely held in the US. That it is -- but pointing it out just begs the question. Animal rights advocates are well aware they are asking people to change their way of thinking and acting in a fairly significant way. And the idea that animals are fair game to be raised in factory farm conditions is arguably deeper-rooted in US culture than any formal Rawlsian contract analysis that might be drawn on to justify it.

He finishes up the article's substantive content by invoking yet another fundamentally conservative principle -- giving you rights makes me less special. He massages this idea around into a semi-respectable point: if we argue that animals deserve rights because of characteristic X (sentience, practical autonomy, etc), then that opens the door to denying rights to humans who lack X. There's some truth to that -- but stating the case this way makes a question-begging move to presuppose the importance of humanness vs non-humanness. But humanness is just another possible characteristic on the basis of which rights can be assigned, another value that could be substituted in for X. So let's rewrite the claim in a more neutral way: If we argue that beings deserve rights because of characteristic X, then some beings may be denied rights because they lack X. Confronted with any being or class of beings that has been denied rights on the basis of their lack of X despite seeming prima facie eligible, we can then see that there are two possible responses. First, we may realize that these beings did not deserve rights after all, since X clearly encapsulates all of our reasons for wanting or needing to confer rights. This conclusion can in fact be drawn about a Homo sapiens by someone not that interested in animal rights -- consider Ampersand's view of Terri Schiavo. Or second, the fact that we don't like that these beings are being denied rights can prompt us to decide that there's some other factor instead of or in addition to X that provides a basis for conferring rights. Such an additional factor -- call it Y -- may invite into the circle of rights-bearers the target group as well as additional Y-holding beings who lacked X but differ from the target group in holding some third characteristic that has not (yet) been assigned any moral significance -- e.g. starting with "current sentience" (X) and then adding "past or future sentience" (Y) would admit humans in comas, but also chimpanzees in comas. Cupp argues that the only factor that can effectively work on this second path, the only factor that can fill the role of Y (and Z, etc) in bringing in all the beings that he can't bear to exclude from rights-holding, is "membership in Homo sapiens." That may be so, but that just throws us back to the argument about speciesism and whether species membership itself is a relevant moral criterion. But this detour through considering whether any X other than species membership might turn out to be too narrow has raised an additional difficulty for Cupp's argument -- it's now clear that he must not only defend the relevance of species membership, but also defend its uniqueness, i.e. why can't the criterion for rights be "sentience (or whatever X a given animal rights philosopher wants to use) AND/OR membership in the human species," or "membership in any species whose paradigmatic members are sentient" (which would include, but not necessarily be limited to, humans)**.

The article ends with a flurry of question-begging flourishes, mostly centering around the economic cost of ending violations of animals' alleged rights (the economic costs of ending human slavery are not a counterexample, we're told, because ending human slavery was morally justified) and the fact that promoting animal rights would require us to say, even to the faces of starving Rwandans, that animals have rights (no s***, Sherlock). I assume he means these to be the coup de gras to animal rights theories, but they work better as the coup de gras to his claims to be taken seriously as a critic of animal rights philosophy.

The article's conclusion argues that a focus on human responsibility, rather than animal rights, would be both more successful and better for animals. Unfortunately he does effectively nothing to flesh out what the basis or scope of this responsibility would be, leaving the claim sounding more like a way of avoiding being labeled an apologist for extreme animal abuses like dog fighting (he approvingly cites the outrage at Michael Vick) without compromising his assertion of the unique importance of humanness.

*I use the term in a broad sense to encompass all positions that assert a strong moral considerability for animals for their own sakes, including both "rights" theories in a narrow sense (e.g. Tom Regan) as well as utilitarianism, feminist care ethics, etc. In the article this post discusses, the author talks a lot about rights in the narrower sense, but I see no reason any of his arguments wouldn't extend to other considerability-for-their-own-sake views that fall under the broader definition.

**Basing the rights of one being on the characteristics of that group's paradigmatic members is highly problematic, and Cupp does raise this concern against crude extensionist uses of the argument from marginal cases. But his ability to press this claim is undercut by his heavy reliance on it in attempting to show why infants and mentally impaired people deserve rights whereas animals with similar capacities don't -- he argues that infants get rights because they can turn into typical adults later, and mentally impaired people get rights because typical adults can turn into mentally impaired people later. Giving up this reliance on relating marginal cases to paradigmatic people would require either resort to raw speciesism (which is what the argument was meant to support), or losing the ability to declare the kind of difference between human and animal cases that he seeks. (My own view is that if a being cares about how its life goes, that care counts -- and if it doesn't or can't care, then there's nothing there to count. Considerations of practical autonomy and moral agency factor in on a practical level to how beings' caring is actualized, but they don't make typical adult individual humans a paradigm or fullest case, since infants etc. care about their lives just like supposed paradigm people.)

Save the Earth with cookies

Looking at this chart from a recent paper by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews in Environmental Science and Technology, the obvious lessons are that cutting back (through personal choice as well as policy instruments like altered subsidies) on red meat and dairy is important from a climate standpoint. Vegans hoping to leverage climate concerns will lose traction due to chicken, fish, and eggs being in the same ballpark as vegetables and cereals -- though I think non-climate environmental concerns like lagoons of chicken poop and collapsing fisheries could be brought in on those points. More interesting, especially to the 4-to-12-year-old crowd, is the clear climate advantage of sweets over vegetables.


It should be about the story, not the reporter

Despite working for a newspaper, I have no formal journalism training, so I can't speak for what they actually teach you in J-school. But it seems like a couple of good rules for writing news -- even entertainment section news -- are: 1) respect your sources, and 2) don't try to be cute; just tell us the story.

Both of those rules were violated by the AP's John Rogers, reporting on the elimination of the "best polka album" Grammy:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's enough to make any serious polka fan shove his plate of sausage aside, fling his lederhosen in the closet and go out and shed a few tears in his beer.


Although posters to Internet sites catering to polka fans (yes, there are such places) were outraged, [18-time winner Jimmy] Sturr, who is hailed by fans the world over as the King of Polka, was doing his best to take the news in stride.

That first sentence should just be dropped completely -- it's a pile of stereotype synecdoche that tells you far more about how clever Rogers thinks he is than about what actually happened. When a reporter falls back on trying to amuse the audience with wordplay, it means one of three things: 1) the reporter can't figure out what's really interesting about the actual story, 2) there isn't anything actually interesting about the story, or 3) the reporter thinks they're more important than the story. That doesn't mean the writing has to be deadly serious, but it does mean the interest has to come from showing us what's actually going on.

The parenthetical in the second bit I quoted is also wholly unnecessary. It creates this conspiratorial tone between the reporter and reader -- #Hey fellow Normals, I know these people are a bunch of freaks. Don't get the crazy idea that I think they're respectable members of society or anything.#

I'm not saying this because polka fans are one of the important oppressed minorities of the world, or because I myself am a big polka fan and therefore took it personally*. But it's still grating to read an article in which the reporter sounds like he thinks he's too cool for all this.

*I realize this sounds a bit like "I'm not gay -- not that there's anything wrong with that!" But I will say that if an equivalent article was written about Scandinavian folk music, I would take it personally.


In defense of spite

Another day, another offensive publicity stunt by PeTA. On this particular day it's billboards meant to capitalize on the recent assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller. At the end of her critique of the billboards at Shakesville, Erica C. Barnett makes a typical expression of spite, declaring her desire to buy some foie gras, which is seconded by multiple commenters. This draws a typical reaction from several vegan or vegetarian commenters, imploring Barnett et al. not to make innocent geese suffer for the sins of PeTA's humans.

As an ethical plant eater (i.e. I think there's a moral reason incumbent on everyone to reduce the amount of animal-eating, as opposed to simply having a personal dislike for animal-eating), I certainly would prefer people not eat additional animals to spite PeTA. But the comeback from the vegan side strikes me as question-begging. It presupposes that eating animals is prima facie bad, and hence something that would require a stronger argument than spite to justify. But Barnett et al. don't share that view.

Imagine if these ads had been put out by People for Encouraging Temperance in America, and urged pro-lifers and pro-choicers both to give up alcohol. I think it would be perfectly reasonable to open up the liquor cabinet and do a shot in their "honor," to spite them for the offensive way they tried to push their anti-alcohol message. Because while I don't drink alcohol, my teetotalling is a personal preference, not a moral duty, and so I don't think responsible alcohol consumption needs any stronger of a reason than spite. In the temperance hypothetical, the spite is purely for the amusement of the spite-er. But it's only a short step from this kind of spite to tactics that really do put a dent in the spite-ee's cause, such as promises of the form "for every anti-gay protester that shows up, I'll donate $10 to GLAAD!" which are widely (and rightly) approved among progressive bloggers.

In this connection, it's interesting to note moderator SKM's explanation when she asked Barnett et al. to cool it on the spite comments -- she argued not that eating animals out of spite was bad, but that it was "squicking out the vegans," i.e. bothering people who ought to be tolerated but who are not providing compelling reasons to share the perspective from which foie gras eating is squicky.

So while I hope nobody who's (rightly) offended by PeTA's ads goes out and eats foie gras out of spite, I don't think that's any better or worse a reason than if they ate the same foie gras because it's tasty.