Reflections on Bonnie Steinbock's article**

Bob Corbett
Feb. 1999

One of the important tools of moral philosophy is the appeal to OBVIOUS moral cases. (Note this is a form of intuitionism. "Obvious" here means, you don't need a huge set of reasons and all that. Just look at it and you can SEE. This is what I have called one of the many euphemisms for na´ve intuition.)

In Steinbock's analysis of what it means that humans have this privileged place in moral consideration she says:

" I want to challenge it (the "it" is Singer's anti-speciesism) partly because it has such counter-intuitive results. It means, for example, that feeding starving children before feeding starving dogs is just like a Catholic charity's feeding hungry Catholics before feeding hungry non-Catholics. It is simply a matter of taking care of one's own, something which is usually morally permissible. But whereas we would admire the Catholic agency which did not discriminate, but fed all children, first come, first served, we would feel quite differently about someone who had this policy for dogs and children. Nor is this, it seems to me, simply a matter of sentimental preference for our own species. I might feel much more love for my dog than for a strange child -- and yet I might feel morally obligated to feed the child before I fed my dog. If I gave in to the feelings of love and fed my dog and let the child go hungry, I would probably feel guilty."

Yikes, all my moral sensibilities scream out -- madness. Not only my na´ve sensibilities -- everything I can know about my moral life, and me -- makes this seem like a position that I must reject out of hand, and believe that most others will too.

I don't have a dog. But, I have a cat, my own cat. (Note, I unembarrasedly use the ownership language here [none of her alleged guilt for me] as I would for my children when they were younger.) Not do I ONLY have a cat, but I have a somewhat special relationship to about 6 of 7 other cats who come to our house nearly daily for food and at least one family of possums. Now I am fully aware of starvation in the world. I have a special relationship with Haiti where there is desperate hunger among children and adults. I know of organizations or specific persons in both Haiti and other places, who make responsible use of donated money to alleviate some of those needs and who actually and really, at times, prevent starvation and mitigate malnutrition. Further, I live on an extremely tight budget, and do budget with animals mentioned above. That $20.00 could make a life and death difference to some child somewhere, or some adult for that matter. I abhor the fact that we live in such a situation, but we do.

And, I choose my cat and those other critters, cats and possums. I do so without a single shred of moral guilt, though, again, a great sadness that I live in such a world. I can't even imagine what Steinbock is talking about to suggest I should or world have such moral guilt.

What this points out to me -- and this is the sort of thing I think moral philosophy is supposed to do -- is that something other than what Singer, Steinbock or Baxter advocates is going on in my deepest moral intuitions (at this na´ve level). The task of moral philosophy is NOT that we abandon our na´ve moral intuitions, or that we cave into them no matter what. Rather, that we become much more sophisticated in knowing what's going on so we know what to embrace and WHY when we do come to choose our fundamental values.

So I begin to ask myself what's going on in my moral life, in my na´ve and not so na´ve intuitions that relate to the case of feeding the cats and possums as a daily activity, while ignoring some starving children and adults? I suspect a moral principle is operative that I have a hard time explaining but I'll call it a CIRCLE OF CLOSENESS. I live in a world of 6 billion humans, many billions of animals and an entire ecosystem -- at least. But, the nature of my relationship to the people and animals (to limit the discussion a bit) is different. The huge percent of those people are completely anonymous to me. There is a set, hard to really describe, which is not anonymous. Among them are:

  1. My significant other.
  2. Members of my immediate nuclear family.
  3. Members of my extended family.
  4. People I regard as friends.
  5. Acquaintances.
  6. People I have business dealings with.
  7. Neighborhood folks whom I vaguely know by face, but not much else.
  8. A relatively new category of people I know on-line whom I have never met face to face!
  9. I even have certain affinities for people who share my Irish roots, for people in the United States, Austria and Haiti.
  10. People I don't know, but meet face to face by chance.

And on and on. Each of us, I suspect, has such a circle of closeness, hard to describe as it is.

With animals I have:

  1. My own cat.
  2. The other hangers-around I described
  3. Pets of friends and family whom I "know."
  4. Pets I see around and recognize.
  5. Other animals I tend to come into personal contact with.

And then all the rest.

The closer one (person or animal) belongs to my own "circle of closeness" is a very important variable in my moral relations with that being. Any theory that wants to treat ALL PERSONS the same way and oppose that treatment to ALL ANIMALS is simply not going to work as a moral rule for me.

I tend to choose according to place in the circle of closeness. Now there is a speciesist bias in my own moral position in this sense: If two beings (a person and an animal, or group of persons and group of animals) are in the SAME relative place in my circle of closeness, then I will almost always choose the humans over the animals. For example, if I were going to contribute money to a charity in Haiti, I would tend to choose one for the advance of Haitian people and not Haitian animals, all other things being equal. But, if the animals are in a closer place in my circle of closeness, then I will choose the animals over the persons, even in life and death situations, such as feeding my healthy cat and neighborhood possums [who MIGHT well fend for themselves without me] over starving children who are not in my circle of closeness. * (see note at end.)

AND I SUSPECT I AM IN NO WAY UNUSUAL IN THIS MATTER. People seem to me to often say they believe in moral rules, which they have absolutely no intention at all of making a guide for living.

I would be most interested in hearing responses to this high level moral principle which I vaguely and at first glance call my "Circle of closeness rule."


Note on above:

* I think there has been a major change in KNOWLEDGE in my lifetime that impacts me in this regard and makes my sense of circle of closeness more attractive to me.

When I was growing up the knowledge of the world was not as easily and readily available to me as it is today. I lived in a much more insular and insulated world than any modern person in an advanced industrial nation does. There was no TV and radio and newspapers did less to educate and inform us about world situations. If one watches classic movies of the 1930s and 40s one often sees stereotypes of foreign nations that would be utterly bizarre today since they are so dramatically and obviously false to the reality. Today we just know more.

Things began to change with the coming of TV, but there was sort of other qualitative change in the past 30 or so years, or maybe I changed and became more sensitive to news, or perhaps it was a change it both me and the availabity of information. But the world became in some real sense "smaller," and world news became much more a part of most of our worlds.

Today with internet technology the world is very tiny and everything going on everywhere is incredibly more obvious to any who care to look.

Put differently, I grew up where the WORLD itself was much closer to my circle of closeness, and the areas of non-closeness were much more not apart of my world at all. It seems to me that as this knowledge situation changes, the notion of the interrelationship of morality and one's own circle of closeness becomes more morally relevant.


**The source of the Bonnie Steinbock article is:

Steinbock, Bonnie. "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality." In: John Arthur, ed.

Prentice Hall, 1999, pp. 141-147.

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu