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I recently read an academic article by Lisa Kemmerer* in which she used the term "anymal" to refer to non-human animals. Google brought me to another article in which she gives an extended defense of the word. This second article mixes together four basic rationales: filling a linguistic gap, signaling a larger philosophical position, provoking discussion, and altering our dualistic attitudes that lead to oppression of "anymals." She seems to put the greatest weight on the last point, but I find it the least convincing.

It's clear that we have a linguistic gap created by the fact that "animal" has two meanings -- members of Kingdom Animalia (which includes humans), or all members of Animalia *except* humans. This linguistic gap can create confusion in conversation about animal rights, and lead to people making false inferences from the fact that (someone says that) humans are animals by the first definition to the conclusion that (they are claiming that) we have the characteristics of animals by the second definition. I'm not sold on solving this problem by introducing "anymal" for the second definition -- it seems too close in spelling and pronunciation to "animal." But this is in a general sense a reasonable thing to try to do.

The use of "anymal" as a position-signaling shibboleth and as a conversation-starter I'll leave to the side for now.

Kemmerer's main argument is that our mistreatment of "anymals" derives from a dualistic hierarchical conception, and that the use of "anymal" can challenge that conception. I agree with the former, but not the latter. Beyond its signaling and conversation-starter qualities (such that using the term is like adding a footnote to everything you say that says "remember not to think dualistically!"), I don't see how the term itself directly challenges dualism. The underlying concept is the same, and is equally dualistic, whether we label non-human animals "animals" or "anymals." Kemmerer quotes J. Dunayer commenting on the absurdity of dividing Kingdom Animalia into squids and non-squids. This is only absurd because it's hard to think of a situation in which we would need to refer to all non-squid animals together -- but if such a linguistic need were to arise, it would be perfectly sensible to refer to them as "non-squids." And in fact we do have a linguistic need to refer to all non-human animals as a group, since prevailing ways of thinking treat them all as less morally worthy on the basis of their non-human-ness.

Kemmerer claims that the alternative term "non-human animal" reinforces the dualism by defining one side by its not-us-ness, and instead we need a term that puts both sides on an equal footing (there are parallels here, though she doesn't explicitly draw them, to the use of "person of color" instead of "non-white person," and in a more complicated way to "cis" instead of "non-trans"). I'm not entirely convinced on this point -- after all, the only thing that bees, bears, sea cucumbers, and sea gulls have in common with each other but not with humans is that they have historically been defined as lower on the moral hierarchy due to their lack of humanness and treated accordingly. But even if we accept that part of the argument, "anymal" doesn't solve it. Kemmerer defines "anymal" as a contraction of "any animal who does not happen to be the species that I am." Thus the not-us definition is right there in the etymology, albeit pushed back a bit out of view. If we can't even define the term without using dualistic thinking (contrast our ability to define "people of color" or "cis" without contrasting them with white people and trans people), it's going to be a dualistic term no matter what set of letters we use for the label. Kemmerer is certainly right to argue that our ways of talking about things can shape how we think about them and can even amount to a form of activism -- in the animal rights context, for example, we should oppose expressions that say that misbehaving people were acting like animals. I just disagree that the "anymal" terminological change fits that bill.

Kemmerer tries to draw parallels with replacing "chairman" with "chairperson" and discarding terms like "Negro" or "cripple." With respect to the chairs, the problem with "chairman" is that it puts the presumption of male leadership right there in the term. No such presumption of animal inferiority is in the term "animal" or "non-human animal." With respect to disparaging terms, "animal" is actually quite morally neutral in its usage -- it is neither inherently disparaging (like "cripple") or indissolubly connected to a history of oppression (like "Negro"). This concern could apply to a term like "brute," though I note that the only people today who seem to use "brute" in its original literal sense as applying to non-human animals are animal rights activists criticizing the word.

In sum, while it would be helpful for conversational clarity to have different terms for the two meanings of "animal" depending on whether you're including humans, I doubt I'll be using "anymal" anytime soon -- and whatever term I use, I won't expect the term itself to overturn dualistic hierarchical attitudes that enable mistreatment of non-human animals.

*The specific article, "Killing Traditions" from Ethics, Place, and Environment in 2004, was a strongly pro-animal-rights and anti-tribal-sovereignty take on the Makah whaling controversy. On this particular issue, I'm much more in sympathy with Greta Gaard's 2001 article in Hypatia "Tools for a cross-cultural feminist ethics." Were I to be asked by the tribe for advice on whaling, I would reply that killing whales for reasons other than physical subsistence or obligatory environmental management** is wrong. However, in light of the history of dispossession and assaults on their identity and livelihood faced by Native Americans, I am extremely reluctant to advocate the abrogation of treaty rights if the Makah decide they want to hunt. Further, as an outsider I have neither the right (due to general considerations of cultural autonomy and specific considerations of the historical and ongoing power imbalance between white and Native Americans) nor the ability (due to a lack of knowledge about traditional and modern Makah culture and a lack of acceptance by the tribe as a legitimate interpreter and re-performer of that culture) to propose how to integrate non-killing of animals into their socio-ecological context. That's the job of anti-whaling and animal-rights activists from within the tribe, of which there are several. Indeed, it may be that the best thing an outsider can do for the whales is the best thing for the Makah as well -- strongly defend tribal sovereignty and oppose other outsiders' racism and paternalistic judging of what's genuinely traditional, which can give the Makah more breathing room to maintain and rework their culture for modern circumstances, a reworking which may -- but can't be forced by outsiders to -- include restructuring their relationship to whales and other animals.

**Some in the pro-whaling camp -- and I'm not enough of a marine biologist to know whether this has any truth to it -- argue that 20th century restrictions on whaling have led gray whales to become overpopulated. Culling in such circumstances is a complex question, but is not something that I think can be prima facie ruled out.


The rationality of going to the Brunce Springsteen concer

Tom Schaller proposes two analogies to highlight the respective irrationalities of progressive opponents and supporters of passing the US Senate's current health care bill. I can't comment on the applicability of these analogies to the health care debate, but I think his interpretation of the two allegedly analogous scenarios is too quick to cry irrationality.

Here's scenario one:

Let’s say you have a front-row ticket to a Bruce Springsteen concert, for which you paid $200, but on the night of the show a scalper outside the venue offers you $1,000 for it. You love Bruce, but you also need a new laptop, so you sell it. Then, walking toward the parking lot, you spot another front-row ticket on the ground. Nobody is around to claim it, so you head back toward the arena, where the same scalper again offers you $1,000 for the second ticket. Do you sell it or go to the show?

From a purely rational choice standpoint, you should sell again. Moments earlier, you valued a front-row ticket less than $1,000. (In fact, you paid $200 for the first ticket, so you actually valued it less than $800.) To value an identical ticket, mere moments later, more than $1,000 is irrational, right? Yet, many people would go to the show with that second ticket: It’s a "freebie," you still love Bruce, and something about having already profited $800 from the previous sale makes the second $1,000 offer seem less attractive.

I see nothing inherently irrational about selling the first ticket but keeping the second. Schaller notes that the reason you accepted the scalper's first offer is that you needed a new laptop. You can get a decent laptop for around $800. And most people only need one laptop. So it makes perfect sense that, now that your laptop needs are met, even $1000 is no longer worth giving up the concert for. That's the perfectly understandable "something about having already profited $800" that Schaller seems befuddled by.

Here's scenario two:

You're on a game show and the host offers you a choice of a guaranteed $500 in cash or a 50/50 chance to win $1,200. The expected value of the first option is $500, whereas the expected value of the second is $600 (half $1,200), meaning the latter is more preferable. Yet people typically opt for the guaranteed payout: They prefer a "bird in hand" instead of two—or in this case, 2.4—in the bush, so to speak. But again, taking the cash in hand is technically the less "rational" option.

Neither risk-seeking nor risk-avoiding are necessarily irrational when the sums involved make up a substantial portion of a person's wealth and the gamble is a one-time deal. Imagine that you learned just before going on this game show that you had no money in your bank account, and the rent -- which is $500 -- is due. What kind of fool would pass up a sure chance of avoiding eviction* for a chance at a little extra cash? On the other hand, if the rent is $1000, it would be quite irrational to take a sure thing that's less than that, even if it's greater than the expected value of the gamble (say, $800), since you can't pay part of the rent and get just part-way evicted. This is not to say that people are never irrational about risks -- after all, casinos are still in business -- but merely comparing someone's choices to the expected values of the options isn't enough to tell you when irrationality is occurring.

Both of these scenarios depend on subjecting one-off, personal decision-making to the expected utility calculations that are deemed economically rational. Consider how the calculation of the expected value of a gamble is justified in the decision-making literature -- $600 would be your average per-gamble payoff if you played the game many times. If this was the actual situation you faced, it would be quite irrational to stick with the sure thing. But in life (and certainly in health care reform) you only get to play gambles a few times at most. A similar logic applies to the concert tickets. If you knew you had the opportunity to do some bulk leveraging of cheap tickets to scalpers, it would make sense that each deal should be evaluated on equal terms. But if you're just one person with one ticket, a strategy that works in the abstract aggregate no longer matches what is really rational behavior.

I think psychology has pretty conclusively shown that humans are a deeply irrational species. I just don't think these two scenarios support that conclusion.

*We'll assume you've already exhausted your landlord's patience for extensions, installment payments, etc.


Discrimination against people with weird names

There's a funny feature to the Democratic National Committee's holiday video e-card. The video my wife got in a mass email from the DNC was "personalized," meaning that "Christina" had been inserted into signs at various points in the video, culminating in Obama signing a card that said "Happy Holidays, Christina." Out of curiosity, she clicked to send a personalized video card to me. I opened it, only to find that everything was addressed not to "Stentor" but just to "Friend." It really made me feel like the president cared about me personally ... (I'm not sure whether the fact that I didn't get an email link to this directly from the DNC is due to the fact that I have finally been successful in removing myself from their email list, or because they were smart enough not to send this email to people with unusual names that their system doesn't recognize.)

Presumably the reason they limited the personalization to common names recognized in their database was so that pranksters didn't start sending around videos where Obama signs a holiday card addressed to Hitler or Poop or something else embarrassing. But it's funny considering that if he wasn't the president, I doubt "Barack" would be in their name database and thus Mr. Obama's card would be addressed to "Friend."

There's a joke here relating to the fact that John McCain always called everyone "my friends," but it's taking me too long to figure out how to word it.


Changing tests mid-stream

Janet Stemwedel poses a question about fairness in multi-section exams. If you discover a problem with the exam -- say, a poorly written question -- after one section of a class has taken the exam, but before the second section takes it, is it fair to fix the question before the second group takes it? I think this question highlights a tension between two ways of looking at grading: as measurement and as compensation.

Grading as measurement is the view I try to adhere to. This view holds that a grade is a measurement of a characteristic of a student -- mastery of certain skills and knowledge -- just like you might measure the student's height or temperature. It's admittedly a difficult measurement to interpret, since we all know what the freezing and boiling points of water are (the reference points for the temperature scale), but it's much less clear what "the stuff Dr. X wants you to get out of this class" is even if we know from your B+ that you got 87-89% of it*. Under the grading as measurement view, the grader's overriding responsibility is to accurately measure each student's mastery of the material. If the grader has good reason to believe the measuring instrument (test) is flawed, there is then a duty to fix that flaw for all future measure-ees, even if some people have already been measured with the flawed instrument. To measure future students with the flawed instrument does nothing to make one's treatment of the first group fairer. Rather, the duty owed to them is to either adjust the measurement to account for the instrument's flaws (e.g. granting credit for answers based on understandable misreadings of a poorly-written question), or in extreme cases to throw out that measurement and either re-measure with a less flawed instrument or calculate the final figure without using that incorrect measurement. But note that this correction is the same as one's duty to those students even if there is no second section with the option of taking a corrected test. Consider the analogy of a doctor taking patients' temperatures. If the doctor discovers that the thermometer is miscalibrated, the obvious course of action is to get a working thermometer ASAP, then either adjust the earlier patients' records (if we know that, say, the broken thermometer was reading consistently 5 degrees too high), or throw out their temperature records altogether. It wouldn't make sense for those earlier patients walking around wrongly thinking they had a fever to say that fairness demands that later patients also be misdiagnosed with fevers.

However, there is a competing model of grading that is prevalent among students and has some pull on teachers as well: grading as compensation. Here, a grade is a reward given to a student in return for doing certain work in the course. A grade is then more of a valuable good, like money, rather than a measurement of a characteristic. So if instead of a doctor we analogize the teacher to a boss, there seems to be some grounds for concern that fixing the test for the second class is unfair to the first class. Imagine that the manager of a McDonald's tells the employees on the first shift to cook up some fries, with the understanding that the employees' wages will be docked if they screw it up. After noting the difficulty the first shift had with the task, the manager poses the same task to the employees on the second shift, but with clearer instructions on using the fryer. The first shift employees could reasonably claim that their wages were docked unfairly. And it's at least conceivable -- though obviously people of different political persuasions may disagree about whether it's right -- that justice to the first shift could be established by giving equally unclear directions to the second shift, so that everyone is earning their wages on an equal footing. It does seem unfair that the boss would give some people an easier way to earn money than others, in a way that it's not unfair to fix a broken thermometer.

Under the measurement view, the difficulty of a test is a function of the standards of the professor, the student's mastery level, and extraneous bias in the measurement instrument. Each individual has a right to as small a contribution from that third term as possible (i.e. a right to be measured accurately) regardless of whether others have secured that right as well. Under the compensation view, the difficulty of a test is a function of the demands of the professor (i.e. what the student gives them on one side of the exchange bargain) and the abilities of the student to meet those demands. Here the student has a right to the same offer or same terms of the deal as every other student.

On a philosophical level, the measurement view seems much easier to defend, and there's clearly a lot of pernicious behavior, such as grade-grubbing, that is rooted in a compensation view. But the compensation view is hard to escape, and it's common to use grades as punishments and incentives. And grades are often turned into quasi-goods because they can be in a sense exchanged for goods, as when you use your grades to convince an employer to hire you. In the case of the poorly-worded test question I think the measurement view gets the right answer, but there's a good reason the idea of fixing a test feels unfair at first glance.

*Here we're assuming each individual is graded against an independent measuring stick, rather than the class being forced into a normal distribution with a pre-defined shape. The latter would raise obvious issues. But I have yet to hear of any good defense of such grading practices, though I admit I haven't looked that hard.


Banning Meat

I disagree with Keith Burgess-Jackson's post about a possible ban on meat in three ways, even though both of us are advocates of plant-based diets.

First, I disagree with his empirical prediction that we're likely to see a ban on (or even just serious restrictions on) raising animals for meat on environmentalist grounds. The world's major governments can't get it together to propose serious restrictions on fossil fuel use, which everyone knows are bad for the environment. So how are they going to make a move against meat eating, whose environmental impacts aren't even on the radar screen? The meat industry is a powerful lobby, and the general public is far more attached to the type of fuel they put in their mouths than the type of fuel they put in their cars. This is not to say that taking on the meat industry is not a worthy cause, just that it's not a cause I can confidently envision succeeding in the next, say, half-century.

Second, I disagree with his objection to an environmentalism-based rationale for anti-meat legislation, of which he says "the ground is improper." I agree that we ought to be skeptical of good policies that are implemented for incorrect reasons. The problem -- as I see it, which may not match Burgess-Jackson's rationale -- is not that it's intrinsically wrong to have a wrongly-motivated policy, but rather that the motivation for a policy will inevitably influence its implementation, quite possibly skewing it away from accomplishing the thing you hoped it would accomplish (hence my skepticism of using national security/anti-foreign-oil arguments for investing in renewable energy). I also agree with Burgess-Jackson's defense of sentience-centrist ethics and criticism of ecocentrism. The environment has no intrinsic value, only value to beings that care about what kinds of interactions they have with it. There is a long history of animosity between sentience-centric and ecocentric philosophers, which seems to have spilled over into Burgess-Jackson's thinking on this question. As I see it, there are strong sentience-centric reasons for environmentalism -- environmental destruction causes sentient beings to suffer. And reducing the meat industry would have serious sentience-centric environmental benefits in addition to its direct sentience-centric benefits. That is, it's good for sentient beings if the climate does not rise several degrees, because things like disruptions to plant agriculture and flooding of coastal areas are bad for sentient beings -- and restrictions on meat production would help avert that fate, since animal agriculture produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases and climate-causing land cover change. The benefits here seem significant enough to outweigh the concerns of mismatched rationales. This is particularly so given that I find it more likely that if any restrictions on meat were ever to be implemented, they would have a strongly anthropocentric basis, rather than the econcentric one Burgess-Jackson discusses. Anthropocentric-environmentalist concerns are consistent enough with (and are mostly a subset of) sentience-centric-environmentalist concerns that anthropocentric anti-meat policies deserve sentience-centric support despite some incompatbilities around the edges (i.e. the policy in question would allow small-scale organic meat farming, which is environmentally innocent (in the eco- sentience- and anthropo- flavors) despite still raising direct sentience-centric concerns). We all should be able to agree that it's bad if the people of Tuvalu lose their island, even if some of us don't care about their animals and some don't care about the ecosystem itself.

Third, I disagree with Burgess-Jackson's blanket dismissal of coercive policies in favor of social change purely by persuasion. Certainly there are cases in which coercive policies will be ineffective, and a situation in which the legitimacy of the coercion is not widely accepted -- as is the case for an substantial restriction on meat production at the present time and, to my mind, the foreseeable future -- is one such situation. And there are issues for which coercive policies would be inappropriate or overkill. Burgess-Jackson fears a backlash, which is a reasonable concern in present circumstances (ranchers recently got whipped up about an unsubstantiated rumor that there would be a cow-fart tax), but present circumstances are not the only possible ones. Further, I don't entirely buy the underlying ontology by which solutions consist in either coercion or persuasion. Burgess-Jackson's model of persuasion is a highly individualist one, by which individuals decide to switch their diets until nobody is eating meat anymore, and the alternative is for government agents to slap handcuffs on anyone caught with a hamburger. But policymaking is not so simple or individualistic. Is it impermissible coercion to cut farm subsidies and price guarantees that help maintain the size of the current animal industry? Is it coercion for a town to deny a zoning permit to a proposed hog farm? Is it coercion for the BLM to reduce the amount of land it offers for grazing leases? Is it coercion for a school administrator to decide they will only put vegetarian meals on the menu? Is it coercion to tax cow farts to pay for the damage they do to others? Any of these policies will result in people eating less meat without said people having been persuaded that meat eating is morally wrong, but they also don't seem to be coercive of those people in the same objectionable way as the "make meat a misdemeanor" type of policy would be.


Utilitarianism and homosexuality, again

I've long been one of the top Google results for the utilitarian view of homosexuality, but I discovered today that I'm losing out in some permutations of the search. One of the new top results is this post slamming homosexuality along with a long list of other deviations from 1950s sexual mores, from what I can only conclude is a Colbert-esque parody of a conservative blog. It includes such prize arguments as: single people go to restaurants more often, so cohabitation is bad for the economy. The author's twisted visions of sex and utilitarianism are an amusing break from the usual claims about unnaturalness or "because I said so."


Testing Capitalism

Matthew Yglesias is right to note, in response to Chris Blattman, that Karl Marx was actually a fan of capitalism in certain respects. Marx saw capitalism as an improvement over pre-capitalist economic systems, and a necessary stage on the road to communism. Indeed, his followers had to do quite a bit of rethinking of the doctrine when it turned out that communist revolutions were occurring in "backward" countries like Russia and China, but not in the capitalist heartlands like Germany and Britain.

But in his focus on dispelling misunderstandings of the specifics of Marxism, Yglesias implicitly accepts Blattman's claim that observing whether poor Africans would do better working for wages in a factory is a test of the capitalism-is-better view (held in different forms by Blattman and Marx) versus the views of those leftists who actually do think capitalism is a step backwards (Vandana Shiva or Immanuel Wallerstein, for example). I don't think this is the case, because said Africans are not being offered the choice between participating in capitalism or remaining in a pre-capitalist economy. African economies* are already deeply impacted by colonialism and the capitalist system that grew out of it (Blattman does reference this possibility in an offhand way). The death of Africa's pre-capitalist economic system began in the 1500s with the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, which disrupted African societies by taking away large numbers of young able-bodied men and women, fostering conflict between tribes/kingdoms, and introducing a treadmill of new goods (if your tribe gets guns, my tribe suddenly needs guns for self-protection). Later direct colonial control of African territory by European powers resulted in widespread dispossession of land for elite use and the further disruption of traditional economic systems to encourage dependence on European companies as buyers and sellers of goods. Post-colonial rulers focused on their own profit and prestige, and limited in their ability to swim against the currents of the foreigner-dominated global economic system they found themselves tied into, have not done much to set the situation right.

The choice faced by a poor African farmer, therefore, is often not between pre-capitalism and capitalism. It's between two ways of participating in the capitalist system -- as low-wage workers on the bottom of the production hierarchy, or as the dregs tossed to the side by the system. That they would choose the former says nothing one way or the other about the relative merits of the pre-capitalist economic system. And those leftists who praise pre-capitalism aren't arguing for simply a removal of capitalist employment opportunities. Rather, they seek conditions under which Africans can have the opportunity to rebuild an economy on its pre-capitalist basis (e.g. through the return of lands that were critical to that economy but are now white farms or national parks). And since this same story of the bloody process by which capitalism first established itself has been repeated so often around the world, I doubt you could ever find the kind of clean test that Blattman seeks of which economic system people would choose.

(I'd also note that his test involves comparing the fortunes of wage laborers and non wage laborers within the same village. The utility of such a test depends on assuming that joining the capitalist labor force is an individual decision with individual consequences. That assumption is consistent with one branch of the capitalism-is-better camp, but runs against the premises of significant collective/structural effects held by traditional Marxists as well as most of the capitalism-is-worse camp.)

(There's a lot of debate about the specific content of a "pre-capitalist" economy. Here I use the term to refer to whatever economic system Africa had in the time period in question, and I think the argument holds regardless of whether you side with the Karls (Marx and Polanyi) in holding that modern capitalism constitutes a fundamental qualitative break with earlier tribute- and kin-based economic systems, or with people like Andre Gunder Frank and the neoclassical economists who hold that markets and long-distance trade have always been important components of human economies.)

*To the extent that I can generalize to an entire continent.



Publishing this to try to get the archive page for this week (which would include the post I posted a minute ago) to show up.

Putting Government-Haters In Charge of Government

Mustang Bobby mocks a Sarah Palin fan who describes her appeal thus:

She's a down to earth person who will fight against the government. I can see her out there fishing with the guys. Plus, she's hot.

Fishing camaraderie and hotness are obviously not good criteria for judging a politician. The first two criteria I don't think are that bad on the face of it, though the devil is in the details and I'm sure Palin's fans interpret them in quite different ways than I do.

The comments to Bobby's post fixate on criterion #2 and quickly turn to a common liberal jab against conservatives -- that if conservatives don't believe government is good, why should we trust them to run it? I don't think this really holds up to scrutiny. Were it valid, it would propose that increased government intervention into all aspects of life is always a good thing, or at least that rolling back said intervention is always an incoherent idea.

But of course we don't think that. One area where I think the government doesn't do a good job and should back off is deciding who should be allowed to marry who. I wouldn't be very convinced -- nor would, I imagine, the people in the linked post -- if a conservative said to me that it's ridiculous to trust Tom Duane because he doesn't think government should be regulating people's marriages, and I should vote instead for an anti-marriage-equality candidate since said candidate is confident that government is good at dictating how intimate relationships should be structured. Conservatives sometimes do make an argument of basically this form with respect to war -- claiming it makes no sense to elect politicians to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who think said wars are bad, since their lack of drive for victory will lead them to fight poorly. Anti-war voters reply, rightly, that the point of electing anti-war politicians is that they will get the government to stop having a war at all.

Similarly, if a conservative believes that tax rates are too high because the government just wastes all that money, there's nothing incoherent about trying to elect a politician who will lower the tax rates and stop the waste. The idea that it's incoherent seems to be based on the assumption that the size of government is fixed, and thus electing an anti-government candidate would just lead to them doing a crappy job of managing the government they don't believe in*. This may carry some weight with respect to heads of agencies, who have limited ability to fight for reductions in the size of their responsibilities and are obligated to carry them out in the meantime, but not against elected top-level policymakers (i.e. it could be an argument against Michael Brown, but not against Palin).

I disagree with the reasons that most conservatives believe the government is a failure, but given that someone does buy those reasons, there's nothing additionally wrong with them voting for politicians who will shrink the government in corresponding ways.

*Some may point out that in practice anti-government candidates have accomplished little in terms of reducing taxes and spending (and of creating marriage equality and ending wars, for that matter). This kind of cynicism, however, is a separate argument from the claim that it's a priori incoherent to aim at smaller government.