Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tortured Beef, It's What's for Dinner

Let's say we accept an argument similar to a voter irrationality argument, but applied to the meat industry. I won't rehearse the argument in detail, but it's something like:

1. Given the extent of the meat industry and the amount of meat consumed by the average person, no single person's decision to stop eating meat will in any way affect the number of (we'll stick with cows here) killed over any given period of time.
2. Given this, no single person can, on their own, have any effect whatsoever on the number of cows killed over a period of time.
3. Thus, to stop eating beef for the purposes of saving the lives of cows is an entirely ineffective means to that end.
4. Thus, if one's sole purpose in not eating beef is to save the lives of cows, not eating beef is irrational.

OK, now, let's say that you accept the validity of this argument. Here's another:

1. It is worse to end the life of a non-suffering being than it is to end the life of a suffering being, at least in the case that one has no power to alter the amount of suffering in the situation other than through the being's death.
2. Thus, if one has decided to take a life, it would be better to take the life of a suffering being than that of a non-suffering being.
3. Thus, eating beef from a factory farm is prima facie better than eating beef from somewhere less tortury.

Of course, the conclusion here has two caveats. First, we are assuming that in eating meat one is taking a life at all; if the first argument is sound, this is not the case. Second, the ought generated by this argument is merely prima facie. It could be overridden by other moral considerations.

At this point, one might think that it just doesn't matter where the beef we eat comes from. If the first argument is to be believed, then we can have no effect either way, and thus barring the introduction of other moral considerations in favor of vegetarianism, eating meat, regardless of its source, is permissible.

But notice something: the number of cows killed in non-factory farms over a given period of time is much lower than the number killed in factory farms. Thus, when one purchases meat from a non-factory farm, one has a greater chance of affecting the number of cows killed than one does by purchasing meat from a factory farm. Of course, the chances still might be zero, but if non-zero, they are larger.

So, we are now in position for the following:

1. Assume that the only moral reason not to eat beef is for purposes of avoiding killing cows.
2. If Argument 1 is sound, then one cannot reduce the total number of cows killed by not eating beef.
3. If Argument 1 is unsound (because premise 2 is false), it is most likely to be because one can affect the number of cows killed in non-factory farms more easily than in factory farms.
4. Thus, if Argument 2 is sound, then either:
5a. It is impossible to affect the number of cows killed by not eating beef, and thus there is no moral argument (recall premise 1) for a single person to refrain from eating beef; or
5b. One can only affect the number of cows killed by refraining from eating non-factory farmed beef, and thus if one wishes to lower the number of cows killed, one has a prima facie duty to eat only factory farmed beef; or
5c. One can affect the number of cows killed by refraining from eating beef in all cases, though one's influence will be greater in the case of non-factory farmed beef. However, while other interests (such as the prevention of factory farming specifically) may override, one still has a prima facie duty to eat meat from factory farms.

If I am correct about premises 2 and 3, I think it most likely that either 5a or 5b is the case. But of course, we have something of an epistemological problem; we may be unsure of which actually is the case. If, however, we can rule out 5c (which I suspect we can, though I fully admit I don't have the numbers to back me up), then in the case where we are unsure whether 5a or 5b obtains, we ought to prefer eating factory farmed beef, since we will either be choosing one of two equally permissible options or will avoid killing non-suffering cows.

Even if 5c is still an option, however, we still have some reason to prefer eating the factory farmed beef, though I suspect many will argue that even the epistemic possibility that we are negatively affecting the factory farming industry overrides these other considerations. In that case, Herman, you may continue to ease your guilt with Chipotle.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ownership, Guardianship, Stewardship

I'm busy working on a paper. I'm trying to make sense of what Kant and Locke said in the context of self-ownership. But it isn't just of historical interest, I'm pretty sure that what I have to say about Kant and Locke can easily be transferred to what current self-ownership theorists have to say.

Kant says something like: "We are masters over ourselves, but we are not owners of ourselves." He then offers what might be seen as two arguments against self-ownership: The first is the problem of self-reflexivity (how can the proprietor and property be the same thing?), while the second is the problem of viewing persons as things (we can own things, but persons are not things). In addition, Kant tells us that we are to act in a way that is consistent with the humanity-in-ourselves, and he thinks this means a prohibition on suicide, masturbation, and a bunch of other things.

Meanwhile, Locke insists that we own ourselves, that God also owns us, and that we have legitimate authority over our children to tell them what to do, and so on. Locke insists that there are restrictions on what we can do with ourselves, something that we are told we own. We can't committ suicide, or harm ourselves, and this is explained, at least in part, by appeal to the fact that God ultimately owns us, and that he commands us to preserve ourselves and others.

There are ways to work with the concept of ownership and these views. There are ways to reconcile everything that Locke says, and everything that Kant says. But all of the ways are clunky, and require adjustments to the concept of ownership. I think I have a better idea. I think we have access to concepts that make making sense of Locke, Kant, and the special case of children easier. Those concepts are guardianship and stewardship. I think Kant's view is best expressed as a self-stewardship view, while Locke's view is best viewed as a self-guardianship view. Children, meanwhile, don't count as things to be owned, but as wards to be guarded.

To be an owner over something, call it x, is to have most of the sticks in the bundle of rights that make up the concept property. This is A.M. Honore's view. There are 12 "sticks" ("incidents" more formally) in the bundle: I have a right to use, transfer, derive income, and so on, things that I own.

For Honore, there are no "essential" rights in order to be able to say that we "own" something. Others disagree. These people say that alienability (right to sell or transfer), and disposability (right to destroy) are fundamental features of ownership. They say that we are not really owners of x unless we can sell x or smash/destroy x. I have similar linguistic intuitions with these other theorists. I really think that it makes no sense to talk of "owning" something unless I can really sell it or destroy it.

If these others and I are right, then not being permitted to sell ourselves into slavery, or not being permitted to harm ourselves or commit suicide, are inconsistent with the principle of self-ownership, strictly understood. At least some self-ownership theorists agree, and bite a big bullet. They say we can sell ourselves into slavery (no one really thinks permitting suicide or harm to ourselves is a devastating objection to self-ownership anymore).

Turning to the distinction I want to introduce: We can distinguish ownership, stewardship, and guardianship in the following way.

To be an owner is to have legitimate authority over what is to be done with something that we own. To be an owner is to choose the sake that will be targeted when it comes to things we own. For example, we can smash our telephone, or use it to make a phone call, or do whatever we like with it, even on a whim. There is no special moral obligation that we have to heed with respect to what we own (we only have to heed general moral obligations that are moot about specific things--like, we can't hurt others, even when what we use to hurt others is something we own).

To be a guardian over something is to have legitimate authority over the thing guarded on the condition that we be guided by the sake of our ward. We are under a moral obligation to always regard what is best for our ward when we deal with our ward. For example, we are morally required to do what is best for our children.

Meanwhile, to be a steward is to have legitimate authority over a thing on the condition that we heed the sakes of third parties when we are making decisions with respect to the thing we are a steward over. We are under a moral obligation to heed those sakes. For example, we can be a steward over a forest for the sake of future generations, and we are under a moral obligation to preserve the forest for the sake of those future generations. Or, we might be a trustee (I think this is just a special case of stewardship) over a trust fund for someone's children. And so on.

If we have to heed the sake of the humanity-in-us, as Kant says, when we do things with ourselves, then it might be better to view ourselves as self-guardians (or self-stewards, I'm not clear). It is not difficult to see how someone can be a master over x, while not an owner, when we think of what we mean by the concept of guardianship. A guardian is a master, but his or her having this legitimate authority is conditioned by a moral obligation to heed the sake of the ward (in this case, the humanity-in-us). We do not own ourselves, strictly speaking.

For Locke, we have been given legitimate authority over ourselves by God, but only on the condition that we act in accordance with what God wants for his property, us. We are self-stewards. Both masters over ourselves, and under a moral obligation to heed God's sake when we do things with what we are stewards over, ourselves. We do not own ourselves, strictly speaking.

The same might be said of children (and the elderly suffering from neuro-degenerative diseases). We are not owners of our children, but guardians over them. We are required to heed their sake when we have dealings with them.

I think this makes better sense of Kant and Locke than other attempts. I think guardianship and stewardship are good concepts to use in some cases in place of ownership. We can now begin to wonder about when it is fitting to view ourselves as stewards or guardians, rather than owners, when it comes to some special categories of things. Like our pets, our children, and certain cultural artefacts (like Rembrandt paintings and so on).