FOUR POSITIONS ON ANIMALS.

Bob Corbett
March 1999

In the spring of 1999 I did my first classroom work with issues of philosophy and animals. It was a general course, introduction to moral philosophy and the question of our relationship with animals was only one of four issues we looked at in that semester. However, there was no question that the students and I all got "into" this issue more vigorously than any of the other issues we studied that semester.

The text book for the course was: MORALITY AND MORAL CONTROVERSIES: 5TH EDITION, by John Arthur. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. ISBN # 0-13-914128-6.

The essays from that book which I mention below and which we read for this discussion were:

  1. "All Animals Are Equal" by Peter Singer. (From: ANIMAL LIBERATION (New York: Avon Boos. 1977.)
  2. "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality" by Bonnie Steinbock. (From: "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality," Philosophy 53, no 204 (April 1978))
  3. "People or Penguins" by William F. Baxter. (From: PEOPLE AND PENGUINS: THE CASE FOR OPTIMAL POLLUTION. Copyright 1974 by Columbia University Press.)

Corbett comments on Bonnie Steinbock with a few comments on William Baxter, and comparing them with Peter Singer

I want to address a general question that has come up repeatedly in our discussion of our relationship with animals. This is both an issue in understanding our relationship with animals, and the larger issue of what is moral philosophy and how does one "do" it.

In our readings we are presented with three philosophically sophisticated "stances" (Peter Singer, Bonnie Steinbock and William Baxter). Additionally I will use for purposes of contrast the much more na´ve position that Bob Corbett has taken. I could just as well have used the positions of some of you, but since I know my own and it's utter naivete (philosophically), I can do it better to make the philosophical hay I want to make.

I'll start with my own, since it is in such rank contrast with the others and you will be able to see how quickly and hopelessly my positions gets into trouble. (The next post after this will be a tiny piece of my own position coming, I think, to a more sophisticated place.)

I start with my own experiences, habits (much influenced by the practices I've grown up with) and my personal intuitions. I tend to have views that are sort of practice by practice in relation to me and animals. However, because some of these practices have come to trouble me [more about this issue will be posted in later] I have begun to move from this "na´ve" stance to a more philosophical one. However, what I am discovering is that my na´ve stance is nearly hopeless. What seems to be the "principle" behind one set of actions (general sympathy toward animals as seen in my relationship with pets and other animals "close to me") as opposed to my blithe habit of delighting in eating animals, and not being much troubled by the mode of their preparation for slaughter nor the mode of their slaughter, there is hopeless confusion and inconsistency.

This sort of na´ve MESS is not to be seen in the much more sophisticated positions of Singer, Steinbock and Baxter. Each of them has developed a dominant single principle which is used to measure and weigh ALL cases, and the resulting "systems" can be looked at as more useful and coherent a tool, and, when there is moral disagreement, it is easier to identify what is at stake.

Singer's dominant principle is sort of three fold:

Steinbock's shares a piece of Singer's view, but has dramatically different views.

Baxter is the hard liner in relation to animals.

Now if we were to go issue by issue and assume the position of the FOUR positions (Corbett's na´ve position is the odd-one out) we would find that Corbett's view is going to lead us to a chaos of simple intuition by intuition with contradictions all over the place and nothing but intuition to appeal to in order to solve the puzzles.

Each of the other three provide us with GROUNDS to make some decisions. It will not always be clear exactly what to do, but we will have an idea of what sorts of facts and consequences will be relevant to put on that weighing scale that Corbett envisioned at the outset.


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