by Benjamin Studebaker
Lately I’ve been thinking again about a question of moral philosophy that has long interested me. This is the question of who matters. Most of the time, when we talk about moral philosophy, we talk about what matters. Answers to that question vary–some propose that happiness is what matters, or suffering, or virtue, or equality, or liberty, or some other value or set of values. But whose happiness matters? Whose suffering? Whose virtue, equality, or liberty? This is something we don’t talk about as often, but different views about these matters have profound consequences for our politics and have serious consequences for ordinary people.
The way I see it, there are three kinds of answers people give to the question of “who matters”, each of which has a number of subordinate theories. These are:
- The Animalist View–all beings that meet a standard for material composition are morally important, irrespective of their capacities or their relationships.
- The Capacity View–all beings that meet a standard of mental or psychological ability are morally important, irrespective of their material composition or their relationships.
- The Reciprocity View–all beings that meet a standard of mutual cooperation are morally important, irrespective of their material composition or their capacities.
Let’s unpack each of these and discuss some of their subordinate theories.
The simplest moral views are animalist. An animalist starts with the presumption that they themselves are valuable and extends this presumption to everything that is composed of similar material to themselves. The inclusiveness of the view depends on how broadly “similar material” is interpreted. It is helpful to imagine a ladder of possible views. The most inclusive views are at the top of the ladder while the most exclusive views are at the bottom:
- Anti-Biocentrism–all matter is morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
- Anti-Zoocentrism–all living things are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
- Total Animalism–all animals are morally valuable. This view has some popularity, but most people who care about animals have capacity views rather than animalist views.
- Mammalianism–all mammals are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
- Primatism–all primates are morally valuable. This is also a fringe view.
- Humanism–all human beings are morally valuable. Many major religions are humanist in this sense, including Christianity and Islam.
- Moral Racism–all human beings of a given race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, or orientation are morally valuable, but other kinds of human beings are expendable. This is the fascist view, but there are many people who profess to believe in a religion with humanist tenets who are really moral racists.
- Kinism–all human beings belonging to a given family or klan are morally valuable, but other kinds of human beings with different bloodlines are expendable. Think Walter White on Breaking Bad or Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.
- Moral Solipsism–only the self’s composition can be known, so only the self matters, all others only matter insofar as this serves the self.
Some moral theorists believe that animalist theories are too arbitrary. They question whether beings can be said to have intrinsic value independent of their capacities to feel or think things. They start with the presumption that they themselves are valuable and extend this presumption to all beings that can do similar kinds of things and/or have similar kinds of experiences. Once again, the inclusiveness of a capacity view will depend on how broadly “similar” is interpreted. Here’s the ladder of views, again with the most inclusive at the top and the most exclusive at the bottom:
- Sentience–all sentient beings are morally valuable (i.e. those that can feel pain and/or happiness). This is an increasingly popular view. Peter Singer is one noteworthy adherent.
- Sapience–all sapient beings are morally valuable (i.e. those that are self-conscious and reasoning). This is very much like humanism, but it also includes other potential forms of intelligent life that have not yet been encountered.
- Genius–all beings of exceptional intelligence or ability in some relevant area are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
- Moral Solipsism–only the self’s capacity can be known, so only the self matters, all others only matter insofar as this serves the self.
Some moral theorists are dissatisfied by both capacity and animalist views because in our society, it is impossible to know that others will hold the same moral views we hold. This means that if we show indiscriminate concern for everyone, regardless of how others act, we cannot be sure that they will return the concern we show. This leaves moral actors open to exploitation and free riding by others. Reciprocity views demand that others be willing and capable of returning the moral actor’s concern. Usually a reciprocity view accompanies an animalist or capacity view and is used to qualify that view. For instance, a person with a reciprocity view who also thinks that only sentient creatures can matter will care about all reciprocating sentient creatures. He will not care about sentient creatures that do not reciprocate or reciprocating creatures that are not sentient. Here’s a ladder of reciprocity views, again going from inclusive at the top to exclusive at the bottom:
- Enlightened Indirect Reciprocity–any person who is willing to contribute indirectly to the moral actor through the moral actor’s wider society should be welcomed and shown concern by the moral actor. This includes foreign allies and trade partners, tourists and sanctioned visitors, and all fellow citizens–including potential willing additions to the citizenry, such as immigrants and refugees. This is more inclusive than we usually see in contemporary societies.
- Indirect Reciprocity–any person who contributes indirectly to the moral actor through the moral actor’s wider society should be shown moral concern by the moral actor. This includes all of the above except for willing refugees and immigrants, whose indirect reciprocity does not begin until after they are admitted to a society and therefore need not be shown concern until they are admitted. This view is quite common today, though people are still much more likely to show concern when the reciprocal relationship is more direct (e.g. family members and friends).
- Communal Direct Reciprocity–any person who regularly directly contributes to the moral actor should be shown moral concern by the moral actor. This only includes the beings with which a moral actor has standing relationships. For instance, if a moral actor regularly buys bread from a baker, he has a regular relationship of direct contribution with the baker and must show the baker moral concern. But if the baker lives in a different city and the actor never buys bread from that specific baker, the baker’s indirect contribution to society is does not meet the standard of broad direct reciprocity. This form of reciprocity often arises in isolated communities whose members have no sense of being part of a greater whole, and the remains of this mode of thinking continue to have influence today.
- Direct Reciprocity–any person who does something that benefits the moral actor is owed concern until the favor is repaid or the trade is completed, but no more beyond that. Under direct reciprocity, if you agree to buy bread from a baker, you have to pay the baker but your obligations go no further than this. This form of reciprocity often arises in extremely unstable, anarchic situations when moral actors are extremely mistrustful of one another.
Most people qualify their animalist or capacity views with reciprocity to some degree. While we are slowly recognizing more indirect forms of reciprocity as legitimate, we are likely to show more concern to those we directly reciprocate with as the level of reciprocity is generally higher and easier to readily comprehend. We are also likely to show more concern to another as that other’s level of concern for us rises. But some people take the view that reciprocity views are crassly egoistic and therefore inadequate, or perhaps not even moral views in the first place. This seems to me to be a mistake. Here’s my view:
I agree with the capacity theorists that animalists are too quick to assert that beings and materials have intrinsic value, and that this value must be tied to something more substantial, to something the being does or experiences. I’m inclined to think that sentience matters because I think that happiness and suffering are what matter and all those who are sentient are capable of experiencing these things.
That said, I also think that in our society exploitation is too common, and that a good moral theory will show when we can waive moral concern for another being in the interest of defending ourselves or those to whom we have strong reciprocal bonds from that being’s exploitative or oppressive actions. In other words, if a being uses its capacities to harm others or fails to use its capacities to help others, I think those others are entitled to deny that being moral concern. Without this provision, I don’t see any other basis upon which to justify self-defense, and without self-defense all political movements against oppressive systems would have to be motivated by altruism alone, which unfortunately in many cases is not enough to motivate people to take potentially risky actions.
I think people ought to recognize indirect reciprocity in an enlightened way, and that means welcoming any new person who wants to reciprocate and has the capacity to do so into our societies and communities, and treating all indirect reciprocators with a minimum of civility–this means that they do not exploit, abuse, manipulate, or otherwise oppress them. That said, I think people have stronger duties to those with whom they have direct reciprocal relationships, and that it is unrealistic for moral theories to ask people to show the same concern for random fellow citizens in a distant city that they show for intimate friends and family members. If your mother calls you up and asks you to bring her soup, you have stronger objective reasons to do this than if a random person asks the same thing of you, even though that random person and your mother may make similar contributions to wider society as a whole.
The state is another matter. In my view, the state exists to show equal moral concern for the interests of all those it accepts as citizens. It should also show concern for citizens of its foreign allies and trade partners, but this is secondary to its primary duty to safeguard the interests of its own citizens, because its own citizens are the ones making direct contributions to its economy, technology, stability, and general welfare. It should admit all those who wish to be citizens into its ranks, provided that these individuals can contribute and are willing to do so. Importantly, because the state is responsible for showing equal concern, it bears ultimate responsibility whenever it fails to do this and this causes its citizens to become marginalized and anti-social. This means that when a citizen commits a crime, the state is ultimately responsible for failing to provide the citizen with an adequate education and adequate life opportunities, so the state cannot dismiss the value of citizens who fail to reciprocate–it must recognize its moral culpability and work to correct its error via rehabilitation and mental health care.
Ultimately, it would be best if we could create a social order in which all beings could be integrated into a system of moral reciprocity, such that no beings were victims of exploitation. In those kind of conditions, it would be possible to have an animalist or capacity view without any reservations or qualifications. Unfortunately, human beings are not the sort of beings that can easily be sorted into one great big reciprocal system. Today there are too many individuals and groups that desire independence from others on the basis of some crude reactionary distinction that has little to do with morality–nationality, culture, ethnicity, religion, race, and so on. Others, such as the libertarians, are resistant to recognizing the depth of their interdependence on others, preferring to rationalize exploitative behaviors by inventing distorted definitions of “freedom”, “liberty”, and “equality” to manipulate others into accepting a morally inadequate status quo. Even if we were to deal with these things, people would still have a tendency to prioritize their more direct relationships over their indirect ones because the benefits they receive from direct relationships are either larger or easier to see. At this point in time, it is not feasible to transcend these constraints as a society. Specific individuals may be capable of following more ambitious moral programs, but it is not possible to implement these kinds of moral systems on a grand scale.
What would make more ambitious moral systems possible? In his Foundation novels, Isaac Asimov suggested that people in the distant future might use transhumanism to share their thoughts, feelings, wisdom, and knowledge with one another, allowing everyone to feel the happiness and suffering of others across wide distances. Under this kind of system, the distinction between the interests of the self and the interests of others collapses entirely, enabling moral actors to practice more altruistic moral behaviors without subjecting themselves to exploitation. But we are a long way off from anything of this sort. In the meantime, we should encourage people to follow the most inclusive moral system they can reasonably follow without subjecting themselves to exploitation and without extending moral concern on an arbitrary basis. That means we should aim for a sentience capacity view, but we must also recognize the legitimacy of reciprocity concerns.
i once heard the survivors
of a colony of ants
that had been partially
obliterated by a cow’s foot
the intention of the gods
towards their civilization
from Don Marquis, “Archy and Mehitabel” (1924)
An excellent comment, if we’re talking about religion and supernaturalism, but what’s the relevance to this post?
Yet another very interesting post! I also found your articles on Peter Singer very much worth reading. I think the conflict between his views and yours touches a very basic and very important point in moral philosophy. I’m afraid I still prefer his views, but you do state your case very well. More on that another time maybe.
Anyway, you make some good points here, but…
First of all, I’m not really convinced by your division of answers to the question ‘who matters?’ into ‘Animalist Views’ and ‘Capacity Views’ (I’ll get to ‘Reciprocity Views’ later). In fact I’m not sure I believe that anyone actually holds ‘Animalist Views’ in the way you describe them. Surely if someone feels it’s OK to kill and eat a plant but not an animal, or that we should act differently towards a human being or a primate than towards other mammals, then it’s much more likely to be because of differences in their physiological, emotional and mental functioning, i.e. in their capacity to experience whatever it is we’re doing to them, than to their material composition as such. I think this becomes even more obvious when we arrive at ‘7. Moral Racism’ and ‘8. Kinism’. Surely even the most extreme racist or kinist isn’t going to claim that people of other races, religions, clans, etc. are composed of different materials than they are, and furthermore that that is the reason it’s OK to discriminate against them. I think these views have a lot more to do with ‘Reciprocity’, in that those who hold them do not believe or expect that people of other races, religions, clans, etc. are willing to reciprocate with them and/or are capable of doing so.
As I’ve already said in some comments on another post, I think you have a strong tendency to oversimplify, and to state things in yes/no, black/white, all-or-nothing terms which can be more usefully and realistically be regarded as graduated scales. For instance, you talk about whether particular classes of beings are or are not “morally valuable”, or about their being either “morally valuable” or “expendable”, but this is a gigantic oversimplification. Someone who would destroy an insect with as little thought as they would a plastic bottle, might find it OK to raise animals as food but not to deliberately torture them. If that person is a moral racist he might find it OK to shoot and eat a pig, and OK to discriminate against certain groups of humans on the housing or labour market, but not to shoot and eat them.
OK, I understand that you want to avoid making your post too long and complicated, and a certain amount of simplification can be useful in making a point, but this much can have serious consequences, as we see when we come to ‘Reciprocity Views’. For instance you talk about:
“Indirect Reciprocity–any person who contributes indirectly to the moral actor through the moral actor’s wider society should be shown moral concern by the moral actor.”
But in reality people have a range of feelings about whether and to what extent certain other people contribute to society, and consequentially a range of feelings about how much moral concern they owe them. This leaves room open for doubts about how much this or that citizen contributes, i.e. how *good* a citizen they are: does a lazy, unemployable citizen deserve equal moral concern as a hard-working tax-payer? (Republicans would say no!). And in the case of Enlightened Indirect Reciprocity the same applies to how much this or that potential citizen really wants to or is likely to contribute. The idea of extending moral concern to “potential willing additions to the citizenry” sounds pretty good, but how would it work in practice? Someone would have to decide whether a potential citizen really is willing and capable of participating in society, and they would undoubtedly discover that some are more willing and capable than others. Even now, few countries are unwilling to accept immigrants who are highly qualified in some field in which workers are needed, or who are willing to make a large cash contribution to the country’s economy. Australia, for instance, being a small and overcrowded country, has very strict entrance requirements, but even Australia will let you in if you pay enough money for the privilege. I don’t see many countries opening their borders to millions of uneducated Africans just because they say they want to become hard-working, reciprocating citizens. So, your idea of Reciprocity sounds quite radical and progressive as stated, but once we start looking at the practical details it starts to appear much nearer the status quo.
I don’t think ‘Reciprocity Views’ belong in a trio at the same level as ‘Animalist Views’ and ‘Capacity Views’, because whereas the latter pair allow for an unprejudiced examination of why we might feel morally obliged to show some level of concern for many different categories of entities (to use the most general term I can come up with!), with some hope (in theory at least) of arriving at an objective conclusion, the section on Reciprocity automatically excludes most of them, is necessarily subjective and consists, to a great extent, of a description of the status quo. For instance, I’m pretty certain that your whole idea of Reciprocity rests on the unwritten assumption that we only owe moral concern to other humans. This is illustrated by the fact that whereas in the section ‘Animalist Views’ you talk about matter, animals, mammals, primates, etc., and in ‘Capacity Views’ you talk consistently about “beings”, once we arrive at ‘Reciprocity Views’ it’s suddenly nothing but “person”. In your second post about Peter Singer you do say that we should show moral concern for all animals that are capable of contributing to our society (e.g. “pets, draft animals, or animals that we happen to enjoy having around for aesthetic or environmental reasons”), but I don’t think this counts for much, as it makes the moral status of animals entirely dependent on the use human beings might have for them. To someone who takes the ‘Capacity’ view that animals should not be mistreated because they can feel pain just as we can, this would be the equivalent of saying we should show moral concern for slaves, but only to the extent that they’re useful to their masters. The recipient of such ‘moral concern’ might well feel inclined to ask ‘who needs it?!’
I would say that if we use graduated scales for our values, and take the ‘Animalist / Capacity View’ that entities should be shown respect in accordance with the extent to which that respect or the lack thereof actually affects them, then we have some hope of coming up with an objective moral system. The ‘Reciprocity View’, on the other hand, just describes the way in which people have always decided who and what they should feel moral concern for, and to what extent. I agree that it would be an excellent thing if people were to extend their circle of reciprocity / moral concern as widely as possible, but the decision as to who does or does not deserve inclusion in that circle will always be a highly subjective one which, in practice, excludes almost by definition any but the most perfunctory moral concern for non-human animals. I think you’re setting out from the position that people do not, in practice feel any real obligation to non-human animals or to humans who are of no use, directly or indirectly, to them personally, and (while making some suggestions as to how the situation could be improved), basically just providing philosophical justification for the status quo. Surely we can come up with a better answer than that to the question ‘who matters?’.
[BTW, there’s a typo in the section ‘Animalist Views’: most inclusive / least exclusive. Yes, I’m a perfectionist :-). Feel free to remove this bit if you correct the error.]
Thanks for the fix on the typo.
I agree with you that people who are kinists or moral racists often defend their views by appeal to capacity or reciprocity, but these defenses are woefully inadequate, as it is simply false that people outside the klan or race are categorically of lesser capacity or incapable of reciprocity. I think capacity views are more common among philosophers, but there are a lot of people in the general population who are animalists.
In moral philosophy, we must first determine who is eligible for concern before we can determine how much concern each ought to be shown. It is for this reason that this post can come across as somewhat black and white. Many people who believe in sentience views disagree about which beings feel more pain than others and in what circumstances. Many people who hold a reciprocity view disagree about how much additional concern it is reasonable to show to intimates. Many sapience view holders disagree about whether this view implies a meaningful sliding scale of concern with respect to intelligence, and if so, how steep that scale ought to be. There are many more internal debates of these kinds, but before we can get into them we need to resolve the basic question of which beings are eligible for concern in the first place. Some people hold contradictory views–for instance, some people show animals moral concern sometimes and no moral concern at other times, in ways that are inconsistent and intellectually indefensible. Those people need to reason out whether they think animals are or are not eligible for concern and if so on what grounds. Only then can they begin to get into the issue of how much concern to show to which animals or non-animals in which circumstances.
I don’t see what’s subjective about reciprocity–we can in theory objectively evaluate whether or not a being benefits from another being directly or indirectly and how large that benefit is and thereby determine the extent of the duty of reciprocity. It’s not merely a matter of opinion, and people can be very wrong about what duties they have and how substantive those duties are. Individuals are frequently wrong about their reciprocal ties, and this is why we have to enact laws and enforce them, to force people to recognize moral duties they have but would otherwise potentially ignore. This is one reason why in the absence of the state, morality generally brakes down and people begin behaving appallingly. To be clear, it is not always easy to know what the relative moral values of different beings are in different situations, but this is true for nearly all the moral views of all three kinds–nearly all have major internal debates that I did not get into about how much concern to show different beings.
I certainly think most countries have immigration policies that are far too restrictive and in violation of enlightened indirect reciprocity. Reciprocity is not merely a descriptive theory of how people make decisions, it is also a normative theory about how people ought to make decisions. Reciprocity recognizes that “ought” must imply “can”, that we cannot expect people to do things that they cannot psychologically get themselves to do, but it still makes significant moral demands of its practitioners, particularly at the more indirect levels. Acknowledging that “ought” implies “can” does not entail denying that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, and there are many changes our society should make to meet a more enlightened standard of indirect reciprocity. Not just on immigration, but on our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged as well.
“Person” is a term that applies to any morally important being, not just human beings, and I certainly think that we can owe duties to animals, aliens, and other beings that contribute. This is not different from my view of human beings–animals, aliens, and humans should all be morally judged according to the same standards of reciprocity. Does the being contribute directly or indirectly to the moral actor that is making the relevant moral decision? The only difference between animals and human beings is that animals are often incapable of making reasoned moral decisions, so they generally cannot be moral actors. Their contributions still count just as much and they are still just as eligible for reciprocity, but there is little reason to define the duties animals have to other beings because most animals are not able to take this information into consideration. For this reason, reciprocity can look anthropocentric–we always appear to be defining the value of beings in terms of their value to human beings–but this is only because we are asking what moral actors should do, and human beings are generally the only beings we regularly encounter that can intellectually respond to moral arguments.
I think that when kinists or moral racists defend their views by appeal to capacity or reciprocity, they’re being very reasonable – much more so, in any case, than they would be if they were to defend their views on the basis of the material composition of people outside their own group. I agree that in reality “it is simply false that people outside the clan or race are categorically of lesser capacity or incapable of reciprocity”, assuming we take categorically to imply that the very fact that person A is a member of group X guarantees that he will possess or lack any given quality. There may, however, be a statistically significant relationship between membership of a given group, be it ethnic, national, religious, social or whatever, and qualities which may affect that group’s members’ capacity to contribute to society, which a kinist or moral racist could claim as justification on reciprocity grounds for exclusion of members of that group. This would in fact be my definition of racism: judging individuals on the basis of group characteristics – even if those group characteristics happen to really exist as statistical facts. A more ‘Animalist / Capacity’ view avoids this problem entirely. You say that “there are a lot of people in the general population who are animalists”, but I’ve yet to meet one.
You’ve had formal training in moral philosophy and I haven’t, so if you say it’s standard procedure to “first determine who is eligible for concern before we can determine how much concern each ought to be shown” then I’m not going to argue with you. Everything you say about the various disagreements is true, and the same goes for many people’s contradictory and inconsistent views about animals, but it still strikes me as slightly strange and unrealistic to try to divide moral reasoning into two such sharply distinguished stages. But, as I said, I’m not going to argue on this one.
The reason I said reciprocity is subjective is that whether and how much someone contributes to someone else depends entirely on the situations of both people. Person A might contribute to person B, but to no one else, so if you were to ask person C about person A’s contribution to society they might justifiably deny that it exists. Perhaps I should have said relative to the observer rather than subjective. Imagine, for instance, that person A mows person B’s lawn twice a week and does nothing else whatsoever that’s of any use to anyone other than himself. Person C (who isn’t person B’s neighbour and doesn’t even get to see his well-mown lawn) might well regard person A as socially useless or of negligible value. You could attempt to objectively spread person A’s contribution over society as a whole, using arguments along the lines of “because person B derives psychological benefit from his lawn and doesn’t have to mow it himself, he has more time and energy to devote to whatever it is he does, which may eventually, via via, benefit person C”, but I don’t think that’s very realistic in a complex society. And even if it were, I don’t think it would get us very far. Using the division of moral reasoning into two stages mentioned in the previous paragraph we could certainly draw the conclusion that person A does contribute something to society and is therefore “eligible for moral concern”, but then we’re faced with the question of how much – and that’s where politics starts. If we were to insist on a strict proportionality between contribution and benefit, we would quickly arrive at a Thatcherite position of “If a man will not work he shall not eat”. If, on the other hand, we recognise that every society will always consist of members who are more intelligent, hard-working, well-qualified and generally more capable of contributing, and others who are less well endowed with these qualities, and that a redistribution of benefits from the former to the latter group is necessary and ultimately in the interest of society as a whole, then we get involved in an endless political discussion about how much redistribution and under what circumstances – one which in practice is more often decided by power relationships than by rational reasoning. And having arrived at that point, I find that I’m talking about the society we now live in. My point is that reciprocity (or rather survival of the fittest mitigated by a certain amount of reciprocity, albeit very imperfectly applied) is basically how things work now and how they always have worked. If we look at a radically different approach, such as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, we see that it’s based on a much more ‘Animalist / Capacity View’, and what’s relevant to the point I’m making is that the qualities of need and ability are inherent in the individuals concerned rather than relative to the observer and dependent on complex societal relationships, and therefore much easier to measure objectively. This all applies much more strongly to animals, who, I maintain, cannot hope to reciprocate with humans at a level which would earn them a significant degree of moral concern. On the other hand if we’re basing our attitude towards animals on their ability to suffer pain, for instance, we can be very objective. We know a lot about how pain works, and can even get rid of it using local and general anaesthetics, so by examining the structure of animals we can build up a pretty good picture of what they’re likely to be experiencing. Science may one day discover that plants also feel something analogous to pain, but at the moment we have no reason whatsoever for supposing that they do.
As regards your use of the term “person”, fair enough, I accept your more general use of the word to mean any morally important being. I also agree that animals are incapable of making reasoned moral decisions, and so cannot be regarded as moral actors. Let’s just assume that in practice the only moral actors are human beings and that non-human animals find themselves exclusively on the receiving end of our moral decisions, but then the rest of my argument still stands: animals are generally incapable or unwilling to participate in the human-made game of ‘Reciprocity’, and therefore, according to your all-or-nothing criteria, do not qualify for any moral concern. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I see it this means that if we cannot find any way in which, say, a rat contributes to human happiness, then there’s no reason for me not to torture said rat to death if I happen to feel like it. I would not say that “reciprocity can look anthropocentric”, but that it is necessarily anthropocentric, the reason being that reciprocity necessarily entails an element of egotism, and because the moral actors are human beings, egotism translates to anthropocentrism. Extending moral concern to animals (or humans, for that matter) who are unable or unwilling to reciprocate, entails a non-egocentric action which has no benefit, not even a very indirect one, for the actor, nor even for his clan, group or species, but which does have a wider benefit for the universe as a whole. I suppose you could call it disinterested generosity.
This is not the way that kinists and moral racists behave–they do not just assume that genetically similar people are more likely to reciprocate, they assume that they are the only people capable of reciprocity and categorically deny reciprocity to people outside those groups. They do not merely view people outside the kin or the race as less trustworthy, they view them as completely without value and refuse to engage with them at all. There are many people who are to some degree racist who are not moral racists–a moral racist is very black and white and very categorical. For instance, Hitler did not merely hold Jews to be less trustworthy, he considered them to be innately malicious in a categorical way. Consequently, he saw no reason to evaluate them as individuals at all, they were simply a threat to be eliminated as efficiently as possible. Their capacities were not relevant, and that is a big part of what was so horrifying about Nazi racism, its totality, its categorical disregard.
Many people who are opposed to abortion are animalists–they think human life matters because it is human, irrespective of whether or not the human being feels pain or is capable of being self-conscious thought. Many deeply devout religious people are animalists–some think that human beings are composed with a soul and that this gives them value that other beings don’t have, irrespective of whether or not the human is in a coma, vegetative state, or other condition in which sentience and sapience are not possible.
Some people see “who matters” as derivative from “what matters”, and for these people the distinction between the two questions collapses (e.g. Singer), and that move is certainly open to you. I’m a big fan of trying to isolate specific moral and philosophical issues and questions so that we can minimize the effects of other kinds of data on our answers. It’s for this reason that moral philosophers often use really bizarre hypothetical moral cases (e.g. the fat man and the train)–it’s not that the situations are actually likely to arise, but they allow you to talk about a specific question or issue in isolation from other questions or issues that might be biasing. That’s why I’m just talking about eligibility for concern in this piece and not getting into gradients and variations in concern that most of these theories definitely imply. But you could take the Singer view and hold that, for instance, because pain matters, all beings that feel pain necessarily matter insofar as they feel pain.
It is not possible for a citizen to contribute as minimally as in your lawn mowing case–a citizen must eat food and drink water to survive, and this means that a citizen must consume and therefore must contribute to economic demand and therefore to economic growth. Any citizen who buys anything regularly is contributing to the health of the economy. There are many people who may not realize that this is a contribution, but this does not imply that the knowledge is relative, merely that the knowledge is not widely held. It is perfectly possible to understand intellectually that virtually every citizen makes some contribution of some kind even if I do not have firsthand knowledge of what the contributions are or how large they are. In a civilized society, we recognize that our own knowledge of citizens’ contributions will be imperfect. We trust the state to use the law to enforce the norms of reciprocity and we show all fellow citizens a minimal level of concern on the assumption that they are contributing and if they are not the state will handle it. Now, whether or not we show higher levels of concern–whether we treat someone as a friend, or enter into a relationship with them–that is largely left to us as individuals, but it is certainly possible for us to get these things wrong. Many people stay in friendships and relationships they should not be in because their friend or partner does not reciprocate or acts in an exploitative manner. Often times third parties are better able to realize this than we ourselves are, because when dealing with our own personal affairs, we are easily biased by emotions and feelings that may not accurately reflect what is really going on.
It is much easier to imagine a situation where a citizen’s social contributions are outweighed by exploitative behaviors, such that the citizen acts as a net parasite. The state should criminalize those kinds of exploitative behaviors and the state should take responsibility for the socialization and education that caused the person to embrace a criminally exploitative lifestyle. It should rehabilitate these people and help them to become net contributors. This is the state’s sphere, and we as individuals should not be in the business of acting as vigilantes. We should inform the state of crimes and demand that the state criminalize currently legal forms of exploitation, but we need not go around attempting to enforce reciprocity ourselves.
Now, you’re right that there is a lot of argument about who is to blame when a citizen is not acting as a net contributor, and the left and right largely split into two camps. Generally the left blames society, and the right blames the individual. This debate is a debate about free will and autonomy, about what these things are, how much of these things one has (if any), and so on. And as you can see from the above and from my other work that you’ve read, I take the left wing view, This is a whole different debate, and I agree that if you hold a very strong personal responsibility view, this can be used to deny moral concern to people. I think this is mistaken from a free will/autonomy standpoint, but I also think that it gives up a serious opportunity to rehabilitate and get more contributions out of people, and in that sense it is simply wasteful. It is true that animalism and capacity views circumvent this debate and eliminate the possibility that people can use personal responsibility to deny concern, but this presumes that it is realistic for us to expect everyone to embrace strictly animalist or capacity views, given that those who do not embrace these views can potentially exploit those who do. As you right point out, almost no one holds these views strictly–nearly everyone qualifies them to some degree with some level of concern for reciprocity and exploitation. So what I’m saying is, given that nearly everyone fears being harmed or exploited and consequently uses reciprocity as a personal defense, what is the best way to use reciprocity? We can’t simply expect people to drop their concern for reciprocity unless we can eliminate the possibility of exploitation (and we cannot do that at our present level of technology), so how can the impulse for reciprocity be used in the most constructive way possible?
I do think many animals qualify for at least a minimal level of reciprocity–even contributing to the sustainability of an ecosystem that is valuable to moral actors merits some level of concern from those actors. But I am not prepared to ask people to show concern for animals that do not benefit them in any way, because this is to ask them to exploit themselves, and this is both hopeless and potentially dangerous. On the one hand you are unlikely to succeed, because people are fearful of being exploited. On the other, if you do succeed, you can potentially lead people into abusive and exploitative arrangements and rob them of the moral tools they need to challenge these arrangements. Consider for instance the case of the slave–without reciprocity, the slave risks becoming convinced that the slave system is best for society, potentially losing the ability to recognize that it is wrong or to challenge its legitimacy. The slave system is bad not merely because the slave suffers, but because the slave suffers without receiving adequate return. It is not enough that the slave’s society as a whole might benefit from the slave’s slavery–the slave himself is entitled to reciprocity, and this is an important part of the slave’s resistance to slavery.
To digress briefly–sometimes the state needs to exploit some of its citizens for the good of the whole (e.g. a military draft, in which many of the citizens drafted will not return and cannot hope to benefit from fighting in the war), but if it does this in a way that shows equal concern (i.e. selection on relevant merit criteria or random selection, depending on what you think “equal” entails), it can appeal to the good of the whole as justification. The crucial thing is that it cannot and must not expect citizens to voluntarily agree to this. It should expect citizens to resist their own exploitation and to object to the exploitation of others–indeed, it is a sign of social vitality that people do this, that people challenge the legitimacy of the exploitation and demand that the state justify itself and coerce those who are not convinced or not willing.
I suppose you could say that, given the absence of non-human moral actors (e.g. sapient aliens), this is de facto anthropocentrism, as the contributions of beings will necessarily be evaluated in terms of the needs of the moral actors, who are necessarily human beings. I do think this gives us reasons to show at least minimal levels of concern to many animals, and in some cases the level of concern ought to be quite high (e.g. pets). But even if mosquitoes could feel pain, I would maintain that we are entirely justified in killing all of them to end malaria, I would hold that mosquitoes are not capable of reciprocity. You are right that this concern will necessarily be justified in terms of the needs of moral actors. I suppose my response to this is that I don’t find it particularly troubling–to the extent that reciprocity is de facto anthropocentric, I think it justifies that level of de facto anthropocentrism for two reasons:
1. It is not possible or realistic for us to expect moral actors to abandon reciprocity entirely while it remains possible for them to be exploited by other less scrupulous moral actors.
2. Even if we could persuade many moral actors to abandon reciprocity entirely, we would likely lead them into exploitative relationships while simultaneously robbing them of the tools they need to escape the perverse reasoning of those relationships.
Something broader than enlightened indirect reciprocity is desirable, but only if it can be had without exploitation, and this means we need some guarantee that every moral actor will be assimilated, that none will be able to exploit the rest while retaining the moral consideration of the rest. The only way I can see that happening is if we achieved some kind of collective consciousness.
Thanks for being so patient and taking so much time to answer my comments so completely. I do appreciate it. Regarding ‘Animalist Views’, I understand your reasoning better now and have come round to agreeing with you on some points. It’s true that the most extreme racists (Nazis for instance), have tried to justify their views along ‘Animalist’ lines, attempting to prove via scientific racism that Jews and other non-Aryans are biologically and even physically different from Aryans, but that wasn’t the reason for their racism. The real reason for racism is usually a primitive, instinctive fear of ‘the others’, i.e. anyone outside one’s own group (as with the Nazis), and/or a desire to exploit those others (as with slavery in the US). People can’t openly admit to those motives, so they look for some intellectual justification. That such ‘Animalist’ ideas were nothing but a flimsy excuse for the Nazis is proven, I think, by the fact that while they undoubtedly would have agreed that non-human animals are even further removed from Aryans than non-Aryan humans are, they felt no need to exterminate them. Interestingly enough, as far as I know they didn’t make any ‘Capacity’ claims that non-Aryans couldn’t suffer just as Aryans do. In the case of slavery in modern times, ‘Animalist’ claims of biological difference were undoubtedly used as a justification for behaviour which Christianity would otherwise tend to condemn. I don’t think any such ‘Animalist’ justification was sought in the ancient world, where slaves were required and victory in war (over other human beings who were just like the victors – except that they’d lost the war) was justification enough. In other words the claimed biological differences are just window-dressing, and the real reasons for racism have much more to do with human relations, e.g. the existence of a perceived threat from ‘the others’ and/or an economic motivation.
Regarding the opposition of religious people to abortion (and indeed euthanasia) simply because human beings have a soul whereas other animals don’t, this does indeed look 100% ‘Animalist’. In spite of my Catholic upbringing (or perhaps as a reaction to it 🙂 ) I’d somehow managed to completely forget about the soul. However, I still don’t think it’s quite that simple, as most religious people would not emphasise the claimed difference in material composition as the essential point, but would rather put the whole question into a much wider context regarding God’s plan for Man, Man’s place and purpose in the Universe, etc., etc. This could then be seen more as a question of their capacity to choose between good and evil, or of their relationship with God. But, as I said, I appreciate the point you’re making much better now.
I don’t quite understand what you mean about seeing “who matters” as derivative from “what matters”. Do you just mean (for instance) that “because pain matters, all beings that feel pain necessarily matter insofar as they feel pain.”? But aren’t you saying that “because reciprocity matters, all beings that reciprocate necessarily matter insofar as they reciprocate.”? Or am I missing something? I should really have read a lot more Peter Singer before getting into this sort of discussion.
My lawn mowing example certainly isn’t realistic, or anything we’re likely to come across in real life; it’s meant to be more like the fat man and the train. (But on the other hand, suppose our lawn-mower survived on the food he could grow on a plot of land lent to him by the lawn-owner, or suppose he lived by hunting and gathering in a nearby forest, getting his water out of a stream. Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as I thought!). But seriously… I am not at all convinced by your objection “a citizen must eat food and drink water to survive, and this means that a citizen must consume and therefore must contribute to economic demand and therefore to economic growth. Any citizen who buys anything regularly is contributing to the health of the economy.” Consumption in itself can only be regarded as a contribution to anything (other than personal BMI 🙂 ) in the very specific context of a capitalist economy. Even when people buy stuff it’s only goods and money being moved around: consumption does not equal wealth creation. I appreciate you’re being realistic by seeing things this way (as we do indeed live in a capitalist economy), but I’m trying to see them in a wider context. But that’s another discussion altogether, so let’s not get diverted. I think we’re very much on the same wavelength politically, and also to a very great extent regarding the free will and autonomy debate, so let’s not get diverted by those issues either.
You’re quite right that it’s easier to imagine a situation where a citizen’s social contributions are outweighed by exploitative behaviors, but that situation is easy to deal with. I’m more interested in the situation I’ve tried to describe with the lawn-mower man, where someone does not interact with others at all, either positively or negatively, and then look at what moral duties those others might have towards them (I’m interested in this case because it’s is analogous to the situation of animals which contribute nothing whatsoever to humanity, and to the citizens of a foreign country with which a state has no particular relationship). You would presumably answer none whatsoever (a being who does not reciprocate deserves no moral consideration), and that’s where we differ. Here I would like to say that while I appreciate the reason for your use of a sharp yes/no distinction regarding eligibility for moral concern, I would want to move on very quickly indeed to at least a three-state system: no concern for an entity whatsoever, a ‘negative’ duty of trying not to harm or destroy that entity unless there are very good reasons for doing so, and a ‘positive’ duty of trying to help that entity. I would then say that we may well have ‘negative’ duties to entities which do not reciprocate, and I would justify that on ‘Animalist / Capacity’ grounds. You talk about “abandoning reciprocity entirely”, but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that (and I’m certainly not). Reciprocity is part of life, and I don’t see any problem with that, but I still don’t think it’s sufficient basis for a complete moral philosophy. I would only want to apply strict reciprocity rules (if ever) in a situation where I’m absolutely certain that the other entities involved have a capacity to reciprocate which is at least equal to my own. For instance I can imagine working in an office with twenty people I know very well and who have identical capacities and duties to my own. I would then be inclined to say “I’ll only cooperate with you and help you to the extent that you do the same for me”, but that’s not the sort of situation we often find ourselves in. In any other situation I would want to be sure that I was keeping up my end of the reciprocity bargain, and I’d certainly try to be aware of situations where I was being exploited and react accordingly, but I wouldn’t go any further than that in making reciprocity the basis of my dealings with others.
This principle precludes applying strict reciprocity rules to animals (useful or otherwise), or to the citizens of foreign countries which are not allies of my own, to whom I would say I have at least ‘negative’ duties. If I come across a wild animal which isn’t doing me any harm, I feel it to be my moral duty not to hurt or kill that animal, even were that action to provide me with some amount of pleasure, and I would disapprove of someone who did hurt or kill an animal in these circumstances. That’s not to say I would want to abandon reciprocity entirely, because if I felt threatened by a wild animal I would feel justified in defending myself, even if it meant hurting or killing that animal (the same applies to humans BTW). And yes, I would apply this principle of self-defence to mosquitoes, even in an area with no malaria and even though the death penalty is perhaps a bit of a harsh punishment for a sting. If I thought they felt pain I would do my best to avoid getting stung without killing mosquitoes (using nets etc.), and I would approve of efforts to find a mosquito-friendly way of eliminating malaria! To use another example: rats cause damage and steal food, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that rats are of no use whatsoever to humanity or the ecosystem. If I had no alternative but to kill a rat in order to preserve my house and my food then I would do so, but I would go out of my way to make sure the rat suffered as little as possible. And if I came across someone torturing a rat I would disapprove of their behaviour.
You may well ask why I should feel any moral duty (even a ‘negative’ one) to entities which do absolutely nothing for me, and my answer is simple. Because a rat feels pain, the universe as a whole is a worse place when a rat is being tortured than when it isn’t, and I would rather live in a better universe than a worse one. In other words the suffering of a rat (assuming I don’t even know about it) makes no difference to me personally in a narrow, subjective, egotistical way, but I would rather base my decisions on a wider, more objective and less egotistical view of the world, and fortunately I have the intellect and imagination necessary to do this. Is it asking too much of the average person to see things this way? Is it in fact asking so much that I have no chance of success? I don’t think so, although a lot of education might be necessary. I don’t see how abandoning reciprocity to this extent puts people in danger of exploitation, or would have any consequences for a slave in need of emancipation. BTW, I don’t see how reciprocity arguments would be necessary in the case of slavery, as ‘Animalist / Capacity’ arguments would do just as well.
To answer what you say about people who stay in friendships and relationships they should not be in because their friend or partner does not reciprocate or acts in an exploitative manner, I think personal relationships of this sort are highly complex and subjective, and may not always be as clear to outsiders as they think they are. Human relationships can have a lot in common with the relationship between a dog and its master, and I remember you saying somewhere that a dog isn’t exploiting its master if its master wants to be exploited. But in friendships and relationships, as in the case of interactions more generally (including political and economic interactions), I think that life is likely to be better if the fear of being exploited isn’t the only or even the main driving force behind human behaviour.
Agreed that hostility to the other is generally the root cause of moral racism and that the arguments for it are inadequate rationalizations. Glad to see we’re agreeing on animalism.
When I say that reciprocity matters, there’s still a question of what it is that must be reciprocated–what counts as a benefit or good thing and what counts as a harm or bad thing? For Singer, he starts with the belief that pleasure and pain are what matter, that pleasure is good and pain is bad, and then he extends concern to all beings that can possess what matters–the ability to feel pleasure and/or pain. His utilitarianism answers what matters and, as he sees it, also implies who matters. Reciprocity is compatible with utilitarianism and a wide array of other kinds of moral systems because it only answers who matters (i.e. those who reciprocate), it does not have a fixed answer about what it is that is reciprocated that is of value.
I agree that you can’t have reciprocity on its own–it doesn’t answer the “what matters” question and it can only qualify an animalist or capacity view. My computer benefits me, but I cannot owe duties to my computer because my computer lacks the relevant capacities required for that, so reciprocity with my computer does not make sense. Reciprocity is best viewed as a limitation we place on an animalist or capacity view. In my case, I take a sentience view but then apply the reciprocity criteria, such that both sentience and willingness/capacity to reciprocate are necessary for moral concern.
So, in the hypothetical case of the person who does not reciprocate in any way, who simply takes up space and consumes resources without contributing to any wider economic system, I would hold that showing this person moral concern allows this person to exploit our society, because it allows this person to claim and use resources in a way that removes them from society. Individual property claims are only morally justifiable in the context of a kind of society in which these property claims have social utility, so this person should be invited to join society and if this person refuses, this person is not entitled to moral concern.
But of course this does not precisely answer your question, because you stipulated that the person neither reciprocates nor exploits. In a closed economic system with scarcity, I think it is impossible for a person to exist without reciprocating or exploiting–the absence of reciprocity is by its very nature exploitative. For a person to avoid reciprocating and exploiting simultaneously, that person would need to exist in a society in which there was no meaningful scarcity of resources, such that the existence of an asocial individual had no effect at all on society, on the resources and opportunities available to others. Without resource scarcity, there is little reason for anyone to exploit anyone else in the first place, so exploitation becomes irrelevant and reciprocity becomes irrelevant. Without scarcity there is little need for moral or political theory, everyone can have everything they want without costing anyone else, so even justice itself becomes anachronistic.
In a scarcity context, to honor a negative duty toward beings that do not reciprocate is necessarily to allow those beings to exploit you. As long as we remain under conditions of scarcity, I will object to the negative duty to non-reciprocating beings on that basis. This seems to be our chief area of disagreement–I think that non-reciprocity is synonymous with exploitation in the resource contexts we are likely to find ourselves in.
In the slavery case, though animalism and capacity might require us to show concern for the slaves, we might argue to the slaves that everyone is in aggregate better off if they remain slaves (i.e. a totalist utilitarian view). If we were to convince or indoctrinate the slaves into believing that a totalist utilitarianism is the correct moral view and that the institution of slavery is a net good, the only way the slave could object is if the slave were able to qualify totalist utilitarianism with reciprocity. Instead of saying “we ought to maximize the good of all beings with composition X or capacity Y”, the slave says “we ought to maximize the good of all beings with composition X or capacity Y, but only if they reciprocate with us, and the masters are not reciprocating with the slaves, so there is injustice”.
I agree that in some cases what appears to be exploitation is not so, but I think it’s far more often the case that people find themselves trapped in abusive relationships where the abuser uses manipulation and guilt to persuade the victim to stay in the relationship. In those situations, reciprocity can be an important intellectual tool in helping the victim subject the abuser’s manipulation to scrutiny.
It occurs to me that there’s another argument for reciprocity I haven’t gotten into–the various conflicting moral dilemmas it resolves. I wrote a post about this a while ago, you might find it interesting:
I take your point about Peter Singer deriving “who matters” from “what matters”, and the way your views on reciprocity differ from this. I still think you’re basically saying that “because reciprocity matters, all beings that reciprocate necessarily matter insofar as they reciprocate”, but you’re right that this in fact a way of limiting or qualifying a more fundamental view which has already been reached by other (animalist or capacity) methods. This is partly why I said in my original comment that I don’t think ‘Reciprocity Views’ belong in a trio at the same level as ‘Animalist Views’ and ‘Capacity Views’, although I did mix this up with some other reasons which you didn’t agree with.
I see what you mean when you say that “In a closed economic system with scarcity, […] it is impossible for a person to exist without reciprocating or exploiting–the absence of reciprocity is by its very nature exploitative.” I would tend to use a different approach, and try to look through and beyond the technicalities of whatever economic system happens to be in place (capitalism in our case) at the equation of what each person produces and consumes, i.e. how much useful work each person does for others compared to what they do for him. When human relations are looked at in this way it becomes immediately obvious that someone who ‘earns their living’ simply by being rich (e.g. by living off the interest on their investments, or the royalties from something one of their ancestors created) is in about the same position as a bank robber, an embezzler or a counterfeiter: they all do a lot less work for others than others do for them. I’m well aware of the practical difficulties of making this type of judgement, e.g. the necessity of comparing totally different types of activity, weighing physical work against mental or creative activity, taking account of the stress caused by responsibility, etc., but lets assume it’s possible to some extent. In no society, no matter how egalitarian, will a situation ever be reached where everyone contributes and consumes identically to everyone else, but lets assume we want to avoid discrepancies as much as possible, i.e. to avoid what you would describe as exploitation. We then need to design some system of ‘fairness’, in which reciprocity will inevitable play a large role. However, we can’t just ignore the fact that some members of society are much less capable of contributing than others (and sometimes not capable at all), while they still need to consume. The concept of reciprocity, strictly applied, would imply that, say, someone who is permanently 100% disabled would have no right to food or shelter, and would either starve in the street or be dependent on charity, i.e. on the possibility that someone might find some sort of contribution to reciprocate (a nice smile, maybe?) or decide to voluntarily go beyond what reciprocity requires of them. This would imply limiting social security to systems for enabling the sick and temporarily disabled to resume making their contribution to society, and letting the hopeless cases rely on charity. I think the way you’re using the concept of reciprocity leads to a philosophy of ‘to each according to his contribution’, i.e. to socialism, which would certainly be an improvement on our present system of distribution, although (as I said earlier on) it could also lead to a Thatcherite position of “If a man will not work he shall not eat”, and even under socialism in Russia and eastern Europe things weren’t quite that bad. I would want to set my ideal of ‘fairness’ as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, i.e. something far beyond reciprocity, but even Marx, Lenin and Trotsky found that too optimistic given the current state of human development.
So far I’ve only been talking about the situation within a closed economic system, and even there I find that reciprocity leads to consequences (e.g. for the 100% disabled person) which I, personally, find unacceptable. Once we get outside of that context and start talking about our relationship with animals or the citizens of foreign countries, I find even more unacceptable consequences, but I’ve said enough about them in my previous comment. BTW, you didn’t react to what I said about torturing rats, so I’m assuming that you do in fact accept that as a consequence of your ideas on reciprocity. Regarding the citizens of foreign countries, I think I’ve explained my position in some other comments on the France/Mali question.
I’d already read your post on “Foreigners, Foetuses, and Fauna”, and I like the way you connect these different subjects, which do indeed have quite a lot in common (and much need of some clear and consistent thought). I do find, though, that by oversimplifying ‘Animalist / Capacity’ starting points such as sentience, you often arrive at extreme and exaggerated conclusions as to their consequences in order to make your proposed solution look better. I’m certainly not denying that the consequences you present (“rich countries have a moral obligation to spend all of their money attempting to solve the problems of people in poor countries”, “we have to permit all immigration”, we have to protect gazelles from lions and then feed the lions intravenously…) are possible consequences of a pure, unmitigated sentience view of the world, but I’m not convinced that reciprocity is the only or even the best way of avoiding them. I also agree with most of what you say regarding the beneficial effects of using reciprocity to put limits on a pure sentience view, which does indeed avoid the extreme examples you give. It’s true that reciprocity “does not leave us with unreasonable obligations to foreigners, foetuses, or fauna.” On the other hand, it doesn’t solve the problem of future people, except perhaps for the coming two or three generations. If we had to choose between a policy which would mean the end of the world in, say, 100 years time, or one which involved sacrifices by present people, reciprocity gives us no reason to choose distantly future people who cannot possibly reciprocate with us over present people who can and do. Another objection I would raise is that if a state only has morally obligations to “friendly, reciprocating” states, and there’s no impartial world authority to decide exactly when a state is acting in a “friendly, reciprocating” manner to another, then we’re left with something very much resembling the status quo: a powerful nation can choose which states qualify for non-aggression and which don’t, and a weaker state which doesn’t behave itself can lose its “friendly, reciprocating” status overnight and be open to aggression. In other words, the law of the strongest. But, sorry, I’m repeating myself; we’ve already been through all this in another discussion.
To be fair, you do say that reciprocity “still leaves scope for choosing to act beyond our obligations–we can help foreigners, foetuses, or fauna because we desire to. Helping non-reciprocating beings is not impermissible, it is merely not required.” If this means putting such extra ‘good’ actions outside the scope of moral philosophy and leaving them up to something as arbitrary as people’s personal taste and generosity then I, personally, don’t find that good enough. I would not want a moral philosophy which allows the negative consequences I’ve pointed out for disabled people, non-useful animals and the citizens of foreign countries, and I’m pretty sure that most people it would object to a philosophy which left the fate of future generations up to the generous feelings of the present one. To sum up, reciprocity certainly has its uses, but it also has its limitations.
In the last paragraph of that post you issue a sort of challenge to the reader to come up with a better alternative, which is fair enough. I may take you up on that some day, but not right now. I would, however, like to offer a couple of suggestions, a hint of what my better alternative might look like. I would start by dividing ‘moral duties’ into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ duties as described above. I would then say that when talking about ‘negative’ duties we should only demand reciprocity from beings who are definitely fully capable of it. Regarding ‘positive’ duties we should limit the consequences of ‘Animalist / Capacity’ views not by demanding reciprocity but by recognising that our ability (and therefore our duty, because “ought” implies “can”) to help other beings is limited by our proximity to them, both physically and in terms of their similarity to ourselves (it is much easier and more practicable for us to help members of our own family or society than to help wild animals or the citizens of foreign countries). In this way the principle of reciprocity would still enable us to resist exploitation, as in the case of slavery, but we no longer have to interfere with nature and feed the lions intravenously (BTW, I think they would probably rather have soya steaks, preferably gazelle flavour :-)). Neither would rich countries be obliged to spend all their money helping people in poor countries, nor would they have to permit unlimited immigration. We might say that all these things would be nice, but if they’re not practically possible then it is not our duty to attempt them. On the other hand we would not be allowed to do things which we have good reason to believe would harm distantly future people. We are not obliged to improve the world for their benefit, but we should at least avoid making it worse for them. This would also mean that states would not be allowed to invade other countries for egotistical reasons. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and as presented here these ideas would not solve all the problems (even I can think of one or two which would remain difficult, not least because the distinction between ‘harming’ and simply ‘not helping’ can be a vague and arbitrary one), but I think they go some way in the right direction – further, in any case, than a pure, unmitigated reciprocity view can take us.
We need a little bit broader conception of reciprocity here–yes, it’s true that there are many people who are not going to economically reciprocate, but they might reciprocate in mushier ways. For instance, if the person who is disabled is valued by friends or family members because that person contributes to their emotional or psychological well-being, that contribution still counts. I will however concede the implication that a person who does not contribute economically and is not valued by any other person on wider emotional grounds does not have any value at all, and that the state has an interest in ensuring that such people do not become citizens.
I’m content to hold my line on citizens of foreign countries–they are welcome to apply for citizenship (and if they apply and can reciprocate in any way, the state should accept their applications), but if they are uninterested in citizenship they are not entitled to concern from the state.
As far as rats go–if you have a pet rat, you should not torture the rat because you are benefiting from it. If you are torturing the rat for scientific purposes, you are entitled to torture the rat because this is the only way to derive the benefit you seek from the rat, but you are obligated to minimize its suffering insofar as this does not compromise the research because the rat is benefiting you. If you are a sadist and the only way you can derive benefit from the rat is by torturing it, and because you are a sadist the more pain the rat endures, the better off you are, and your sadism extends only to non-reciprocating beings and not to beings with whom you do have substantive moral duties, you might still have a duty to avoid torturing the rat because this will upset other people to whom you do have duties. You are clearly upset by the idea that a person would torture rats, and other members of our society owe duties to you, so they may have a duty not to torture rats for your sake, even if they are sadistic. You could also raise the objection that it is not possible or as a rule unlikely that the sadism only extends to rats, and that permitting people to engage in sadistic behavior may result in sadistic acts being committed against beings with which there are moral duties, and prohibit it on this basis. You could also object that every rat that could potentially be tortured could potentially instead be someone’s pet, or be fed to someone’s pet, or be fed to some other morally relevant being, or be experimented on in a lab, and you could prohibit sadistic torture of rats on the grounds that it wastes the rat’s potential or denies the rat a realistic opportunity to join the moral community. But if we had a being that could not reciprocate with anyone and for whom there were no alternative superior purpose available, and we could be certain that the sadist will not extend that sadism to other kinds of beings aside from this one, and we could be certain that no one who cared about the rat would know about it, I will not deny that rat torture would be permissible in that scenario, particularly if the rat had engaged in some kind of exploitative behavior (e.g. it had invaded the sadist’s space, bitten the sadist, eaten the sadist’s food, etc.). I doubt you’ll find that convincing, but I submit to you that it is impossible for you to really consider that case because the case stipulates that you don’t know about the torture, and you cannot consider it without knowing about it.
In your case of the world with 100 years to live, I agree that reciprocity gives us no duties to the far distant people and only duties to the immediately proximal generations. But I don’t think this means that people will choose to let the world go dark in 100 years, because people have an interest in their legacies, in their sense that their actions matter, and this is destroyed if they have any immediate knowledge that, as a result of their actions, the community will likely cease to continue.
There are a lot of moral theories that have spaces for what is called the “supererogatory”, those actions that are good but not required. It is definitely good to not torture the rat even in the very specific situation outlined above, but I don’t think it’s required that one not do so, and I do think there ought to be limits to what we demand of people if we want them to continue to adhere to our moral theory. Moral theories that are too demanding result in believer apathy, where the believers feel they cannot possibly meet the standard. Consequently, they start violating it all over the place indiscriminately, feeling guilty about it afterwards but never changing their behavior. These moral systems evolve different strategies for forgiving the inevitable errors and begin to view their adherents as morally flawed as a matter of course, and soon there is no pressure at all to improve the standards of behavior, because the system of forgiveness renders moral error meaningless.
While it’s true that in practice that we need a world state to enforce international reciprocity impartially, it is still the case that there are right answers to this in theory even if there is no world state to enforce those right answers. If A and B are allies and A decides to invade B, B can claim that it was reciprocating and that A is wrong, and perhaps B is right, and there is no way to enforce this moral claim because A is the stronger state, but some of the people of A might recognize that B was reciprocating and oppose the invasion on this basis. If on the other hand you convince A to never attack other states regardless of whether or not they are reciprocating on capacity grounds, this ensures A never attacks B, but it risks causing A to be exploited by some other state C, which is worse for A and is a decisive reason for A to prefer reciprocity to strict capacity. A is better off sometimes making moral mistakes itself than it is always being subject to the moral mistakes of others. A good moral theory produces good results for the people who believe in that moral theory irrespective of whether or not other people believe in it.
One of the things I do agree with Singer on is that there is no distinction between positive and negative duties, that failing to help is the same as harming whenever negative consequences are produced that could have been avoided.
It’s true that the state has an interest in ensuring that people who cannot reciprocate at all, even in mushier ways, do not become citizens. But what do we do with people who suddenly find themselves in that position through illness, injury or old age? I suppose you could stretch the concept of reciprocity backwards through time a bit, and say that their reciprocity in the past has earned them moral consideration in the present, but that would introduce something like gratitude and would be a serious departure from the pure reciprocity principle.
You really go out of your way to stretch the concept of reciprocity for the benefit of rats, but you’re correct in your supposition that I don’t find it convincing. For a start I see a couple of inconsistencies. For instance you say it’s OK to torture a rat for scientific purposes, if that’s the only way to derive the benefit obtained from the results of the research. But surely a sadist is deriving utility from the very act of torturing the rat, and why is the pleasure he derives from this action of any less value than the pleasure (or diminution of pain) which people are likely to derive from the results of the scientific research? An obvious answer might be that scientific research is likely to bring benefit to many people, perhaps even the whole of humanity, whereas the sadist is acting only for his own egotistical pleasure – but what if the scientist is trying to find a cure for an extremely rare disease which isn’t even life-threatening? And suppose the sadist invites all his sadist friends to come and watch, and perhaps makes a video which will provide pleasure to many other sadists… Regarding the argument that permitting people to engage in sadistic behaviour may result in sadistic acts being committed against (for instance) humans, that could work both ways. It’s a similar argument to the one about pornography, especially the sort which involves things like rape and violence, where it can be argued that it encourages such behaviour IRL, or alternatively that it provides an outlet and a substitute for the real thing. I haven’t looked into it in any detail, but I’m pretty sure there is research evidence pointing in both directions. If torturing a rat might prevent the torture of a human, that would be an argument in its favour. It would also constitute utility of the rat to humans, and therefore reciprocation, which is where things get complicated (see below).
But let’s not worry about that sort of argument, as the point I want to make is much more fundamental. Suppose we compare the sadist’s perverse pleasure to the gastronomic pleasure of a French gourmet in eating foie gras. In case anyone reading this doesn’t already know, foie gras is produced using
methods which most people (well, most people who don’t eat the stuff) would probably describe as cruel and inhumane, if not actually torture. As far as I know there isn’t a goose-friendly way of producing foie gras. Let’s assume that the only utility of the rat or goose to humans, i.e. the only way they can reciprocate, is by providing perverse pleasure to the sadist or gastronomic pleasure to the gourmet (or perhaps even by preventing humans being tortured – see above). It gets a bit complicated, because we arrive in a somewhat circular situation: an animal which reciprocates deserves moral consideration and therefore shouldn’t be tortured, but the only ways these animals can reciprocate necessarily implies their suffering. Many people would undoubtedly argue that the pain caused to the animal in making foie gras is a by-product, collateral damage, and that the maker and the eater of foie gras (who may well regret the suffering they cause) should do their best to limit the suffering as much as possible (although they may or may not actually do so, and generally find gastronomic and economic factors much more important), whereas the sadist actually takes pleasure in what he does. For a consequentialist this shouldn’t make any difference, as the consequences for the animal are similar. In fact, from a utilitarian point of view, all else being equal, the pleasure of the sadist and the regret of the maker and the eater of foie gras actually work in the sadist’s favour. The only real objection to regarding the two cases as equivalent would involve setting up a hierarchy of human pleasures, and saying that gastronomic pleasure is somehow better, higher or more noble than the perverse pleasure of the sadist, and that is, in fact, what most people do. I can’t see any rational justification for that. Which pleasures are more permissible is a totally subjective matter, and a gourmet and a sadist might well disagree on the matter. I suspect that the only reason people in general tend to see things this way is that there are more gourmets than sadists in the world. To give another example, suppose a guy has a horse which he uses during the day on his farm, and for his unspeakable perverse sadistic pleasures at night. You could say that the horse is reciprocating in its day job, and therefore deserves moral consideration and shouldn’t be subject to the sadism of its owner at night, but surely that’s just saying that one sort of utility is superior to another? You seem to be doing this yourself when you conclude that “if we had a being that could not reciprocate with anyone and for whom there were no alternative superior purpose available, […] rat torture would be permissible […]” (my italics). Another approach would be to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages of various scenarios, both for the animals and humans involved, whereupon we might well find that the small pleasures enjoyed by the humans in these cases don’t justify the large amount of suffering imposed on the animals, but you can only do that once you’ve agreed that the animals deserve any moral consideration in the first place, i.e. that they’re reciprocating, i.e. that a human being finds them useful – which a sadist undoubtedly does. I think we’re getting a bit circular again.
You could write a book about the possible implications of all this (and they’ve undoubtedly been written), but I wouldn’t bother. In fact I’ve already written a lot more than I intended. What it all comes down to is that once you try to extend moral consideration to animals using the reciprocity principle you run into all kinds of difficulties. Much as I appreciate most of what you write about reciprocity within human society, the more I think about it the less I like the way to apply it to animals. I think you might be better off saying that the principle doesn’t apply to animals at all, and that they should be regarded as objects to be used by humans as they see fit (which, in my opinion, is the de facto result of your theories anyway). You already treat animals very differently to humans. For instance a guy who owned a horse and forced him to work hard all day, only rewarding him with food and shelter, would be doing nothing immoral, whereas a human who did exactly the same thing to another human would be a slave-owner. I don’t see how reciprocity gives us any reason to treat a horse and a human being so differently, so maybe you should forget about animals altogether.
I think I’ve said already enough about the relationships between states, so I’ll jump to your final statement: “A good moral theory produces good results for the people who believe in that moral theory irrespective of whether or not other people believe in it.” This is where we really differ, as I would say that a good moral theory produces good results for humanity as a whole (and more than just humanity if we include animals). I basically find the principle of reciprocity too egotistical, in that it ultimately only considers the direct or indirect interests of the moral actor, rather than looking at things from a higher level and considering what’s best for all concerned. Doing so inevitably makes more demands on people, which brings us to the question of how demanding a moral theory is allowed to be, and the bigger question of what we’re trying to achieve with moral philosophy and what we expect a moral theory to do for us. That’s too big a question to go into here, and we’ve already talked a bit about it elsewhere, so I won’t say much now. You’re definitely more practice-oriented than I am, and less optimistic about the capacity for change of what’s generally referred to as ‘human nature’, so it’s logical that you go for a less demanding theory. You’d probably also say you’re more of a consequentialist than I am, but I’m not so sure about that. I’d say I’m just looking at consequences in a wider context, and perhaps being more optimistic about them. I would say that a moral theory should reflect as nearly as possible how we think things should be, even if we then have to compromise with its application in practice, but if I were to accept reciprocity as I understand you to mean it I would be compromising on the moral theory itself in the hope of having more success in applying it, and I wouldn’t want to do that.
Interesting that you say Peter Singer doesn’t make any distinction between positive and negative duties. Maybe the distinction I want to make is too vague and arbitrary to be useful. I really must read more of him. On the other hand I tend to want to do away with the distinction between ‘moral duties’ and ‘supererogatory actions’, and just talk about what is or isn’t ‘a good idea’. We should then approve of what is ‘a good idea’ and encourage that behaviour using incentives and (where absolutely necessary) punishment. Any thoughts on that?
Anyway, I think we’re yet again getting to the point where we’ve come to an impasse and will have to agree to differ…
Oftentimes we make specific explicit promises of old age benefits to people when they’re younger as part of the payment for their services to society (e.g. social security, pension plans, etc.). If we did not follow through on those promises, those people could claim to have been exploited by us. Old people also often continue reciprocating in the mushy ways. But all that said, if a person really can’t reciprocate anymore and they aren’t owed things or can’t meaningfully benefit from their the things they are owed, I think assisted suicide is a good option.
In the case in which the only contribution (or the largest contribution) the being can make necessarily involves that being’s exploitation, the being is not fully capable of reciprocal relations, because the benefits it confers necessarily require its suffering. This is often the case with scientific research on animals and it is generally the case with eating animals. The moral actor has a duty to minimize the suffering of the being insofar as this remains consistent with deriving the benefit, but since there can be no benefits at all without some level of exploitation, that level of exploitation is permissible. I’m prepared to bite the bullet on the sadist case–if the only way for the being to confer benefit on a moral actor is its use by the sadist and this use will not encourage the sadist to inflict pain on morally relevant beings or exploit others, this is permissible, and since the sadist’s pleasure requires that the suffering not be limited in any way, the sadist has carte blanche to inflict unlimited suffering, with all the qualifiers I had before about ensuring that no one who would object to the suffering finds out. Because we are not sadists and because we would find the suffering displeasing to ourselves, our intuitions are going to run against this conclusion, but I think this is ultimately due to our own inability to fully imagine what it is like to be a sadist.
I’m reminded of the last man case–in the last man case, there is only one moral actor remaining in the world, and this moral actor is a sadist and an arsonist who wants to spend the rest of his days burning forests and torturing and killing all the remaining animals. Indeed, this person is psychologically constituted such that if he does not engage in sadism and arson, he will suffer greatly and experience exploitation. No one else exists who can know about this and feel bad about it. In that scenario, I think it is undeniable that the last man can do as he pleases, though the animals are certainly entitled to resist him and kill him if they can.
If and only if a being is capable of reciprocity, you have to reciprocate with it and take it into account. Once you’ve done that, your own utility is no longer the only meaningful metric of value. So in the horse case, because the horse performs services for you during the day, you must consider the horse’s utility at night. You may not make use of the horse however you please because the horse performs services for you.
By “alternative or superior purpose”, I am not making an arbitrary distinction between superior and inferior pleasures, I am making a distinction in the amount of total pleasure of any kind the action produces. If it creates more aggregate benefit for the community of moral actors to have the horse perform services during the day, the horse can be reciprocated with and deserves consideration at night. If it creates more aggregate benefit for the community of moral actors to abuse the horse at night, the horse cannot be reciprocated with and is in the same circumstance as the rat, in which case it would not be permissible to ask the horse to also perform services during the day, as this would entail reciprocating with the horse at night. If there is some third purpose for the horse that produces more aggregate benefit than both these other purposes, the horse should do whatever that thing is, and we should reciprocate with it insofar as that is possible. In each of these cases, the question is how much benefit there is, not what kind of benefit is yielded.
What other kinds of pleasures do you think a working horse ought to be entitled to in addition to food and shelter? The contributions of working horses are quite large–we may very well have a duty to do more things for working horses. I am certainly not presuming that food and shelter are sufficient compensation for a working horse. Working horses are probably entitled to quite a bit more–because they reciprocate, they should be granted citizenship and all the benefits of citizenship that they are capable of enjoying. Let’s have wages and pensions for working horses and have trustees manage their money and use it to ensure a high quality of life. Let’s get them 8 hour work days, let’s get workplace health and safety standards, etc. Just because the horses aren’t objecting doesn’t mean we’re meeting the appropriate standard of reciprocity with them. I absolutely think reciprocity can take us quite a bit further with animals than where we are presently.
Reciprocity is a bit egotistical when the moral actor is an individual, but it becomes much more big picture when the moral actor is a state, because the state must show equal concern for all citizens and it must grant citizenship to all beings willing and capable of reciprocity–including working horses. If you contribute on the same scale as a human being you get concern on the same scale as a human being.
As far as incentivizing good treatment of non-reciprocating beings goes, I keep coming back to the thought that this is encouraging people to voluntarily participate in their own exploitation. On a substantive moral level, I think this is very wrong. If a reciprocating being is going to be exploited, this should only happen because the state has decided that this exploitation is the only possible way to show equal concern for the interests of citizens (e.g. the case of the military draft). It should not happen because the state has chosen to prioritize the interests of non-reciprocating beings over those beings that contribute to the state. Once this happens, the incentive to reciprocate or make some contribution in the first place disappears and the entire moral system deteriorates. But if reciprocity and exploitation become unimportant because of resource bountifulness or because we all link up to some sort of hive mind, that would change the situation.
You’re quite right about old age benefits. The idea that someone might give up part of their present reward in the expectation of receiving it later when it’s more useful to them is perfectly compatible with the reciprocity principle, and I was wrong to suggest that it wasn’t and that such systems necessarily imply something like gratitude. Silly of me. I am, however, more interested in the case of the person who, for whatever reason, has no pension scheme and eventually finds himself neither capable of reciprocating nor owed anything by anyone. I have no problem with the idea of assisted suicide for people who can’t meaningfully benefit from the things they are owed, whether they’re capable of reciprocating or not, as I think it should always be available (with the necessary safeguards) to anyone who wants it. However I would have big problems with its being imposed on people who don’t want it, simply because they can no longer reciprocate. Not that I find the idea of not-entirely-voluntary assisted suicide totally taboo, as I agree with what you say somewhere about the need for a rational way of allocating scarce medical resources, and I see big advantages in applying something like the reciprocity principle here rather than trying to preserve life at all cost due to some religiously-inspired ideas about the ‘sanctity of life’. But the two cases are very different, as your use of the reciprocity principle implies that people who can no longer reciprocate and aren’t owed things do not deserve moral concern and may therefore be disposed of against their will, whereas the making of difficult choices in the allocation of medical resources implies no such thing – even when the fact that someone doesn’t receive the care they need results in their choosing to end it all sooner than they would otherwise have done. BTW, I see a very practical application here of the distinction between positive and negative duties which I talked about further up. We are not obliged to help someone in need when the necessary resources could be put to more rational use elsewhere, but neither are we allowed to harm that person by killing them against their will. I agree that even here the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, in that I’m agreeing to the withholding of medical resources, whereas I wouldn’t agree to the withholding of food and water as that would effectively mean killing the person concerned, and what reason do we have for saying that medical resources are in some essential way different to the resources everyone needs to carry on living? My answer would be that the medical resources are scarce in the sense that using them to save one person’s life, for instance, might prevent their being used to significantly improve the lives of ten others, whereas allowing this person to consume food and water would not have any noticeable effect on anyone else. If food and water were very scarce, e.g. in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, the situation would be very different. You would undoubtedly say, however, that by allowing this non-reciprocating person to consume food and water which might otherwise be used by those who are reciprocating (even though they’ve already got enough), we are allowing him to ‘exploit’ them. That is one point where we essentially differ, and I believe it’s not entirely unrelated to my desire to think in ‘sliding scales’ whereas you want sharp yes/no distinctions regarding who is or isn’t eligible for moral concern. There is no sharp cut-off point between the lifeboat situation and the sort of everyday-life-in-a-western-country situation I’m assuming in my example, and any cut-off point we decide on is necessarily arbitrary and man-made, but I still see very relevant differences between the two situations. So, I don’t agree with your idea of (compulsory) assisted suicide for the non-reciprocating, but I appreciate your being consistent and honest enough to recognise that it is a logical outcome of the reciprocity principle.
You obviously find the ‘mushier’ forms of reciprocation very important, as they can make a difference between being eligible or not for moral concern, which, as we have seen, can mean the difference between life and death. I do not agree that they should make so much difference, and I actually find them very similar to the sort of ‘reciprocation’ someone might get from a pet: unlike what I might call the ‘true’ reciprocation of the active member of society or the working horse, this sort of ‘reciprocation’ entails nothing more than that the person or animal concerned happens to possess certain qualities which the moral actor happens to find attractive. In other words, people and animals are being given or not given moral concern on the basis of what they are rather than because of anything they do or do not do, which I think comes pretty close to an ‘Animalist View’. A practical consequence of this might be that cuddly furry animals have much more chance of a good life than unattractive slimy ones, which is pretty close to the status quo and is an aspect of the de facto anthropocentrism inherent in the reciprocity principle as you apply it to animals.
But assuming the ‘mushier’ forms of reciprocation really are this important, I’m quite curious as to how you envisage their being evaluated in practice, in situations where it matters. Let us consider the person who has become completely incapable of reciprocation and who isn’t owed anything. Whether they deserve moral concern (and therefore, quite possibly, whether they will be permitted to carry on living), will then depend on their mushy qualities, but how can these be measured? I can think of two ways, the most obvious of which would be to leave things up to the individuals concerned and let nature take its course: if someone doesn’t happen to have any family or neighbours who feel inclined to disadvantage themselves in order to help them, they would be reduced to begging, and if that failed, in the absence of any state support for non-reciprocating beings, they would eventually die of hunger, perhaps deciding somewhere along the way to make it easy on themselves by opting for assisted suicide. The other option might involve objective tests for mushy qualities, signed statements by family and neighbours, and eventually a final decision by a special committee as to whether the person in question qualifies for moral concern and a state pension, with assisted suicide as the runner-up prize. It might make a good subject for an SF book (any SF writers reading this? 🙂 ).
I think that what I ultimately object to in your theories is the way in which the world is divided up into moral actors, morally relevant beings and the rest, the moral actors being the ones with the power to decide, on the basis of their own needs and desires, which beings are morally relevant and which are expendable. I find this situation much too close to the law of the strongest, and much too far removed from any conception of ‘fairness’ which I would accept. The ‘last man’ case demonstrates very well for me exactly where we differ. The last man is the only being capable of making reasoned moral decisions, and therefore the only moral actor involved. At what level are we considering this case? If we try to exclude ourselves from the situation and say that the only beings involved are the last man and the other inhabitants of the world, then we are making him judge and jury in his own trial: there is no one but him to decide whether he is entitled to make any use he pleases of the other inhabitants, and therefore to destroy them if that’s what will provide him with the most pleasure. If he is following your theories he will certainly decide in his own favour and do just that. If, however, we raise things up a level and include ourselves in the equation, and say it is we who decide what is and isn’t permissible, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t consider the interests of the other inhabitants of the world, and weigh them up against those of the last man. We may then decide that, even though he “will suffer greatly and experience exploitation”, he is not justified in burning the forests and torturing and killing the animals, and that it would be best for all concerned if he were to find a good cliff and jump off it. What reason could we have for deciding in favour of the last man? Because he is of our species? That would be pure irrational speciesism. Because of the ‘capacity’ argument that, due to his mental constitution, he is more capable of suffering than the average animal? If true that would weigh in his favour, but perhaps not sufficiently, considering the numbers involved on both sides. You conclude that “it is undeniable that the last man can do as he pleases”, while my conclusion is exactly the opposite. Of course, all this remains totally theoretical, as the last man isn’t going to be bothered by what some theoretical beings sitting at their computers might think of him, and is going to do what he wants anyway, simply because he has the power to do so and knows it will give him the most pleasure. I can see very good reasons for saying that words like “entitled” and “justified” are meaningless in this context, and that there’s no point in our even discussing the case. But if there’s any sense at all in talking about the moral philosophy of the situation, then we have to look at it from as high a level as possible, and it’s quite reasonable for us to decide that what he wants to do is wrong. Otherwise we arrive at the position that whoever has the power to decide a moral issue, where he must choose between his own interests and those of others, is always morally justified in deciding in his own favour.
I accept your argument about the “alternative or superior purpose”. Sorry to have lumped you in with the large majority (I’m sure) who do indeed think along the lines of a hierarchy or more and less acceptable pleasures. I’m pleased to see that the reciprocity principle can work out so well for working horses. I don’t think even Peter Singer has ever gone so far as to suggest wages, pensions and an 8 hour working day for carthorses. I like the idea of giving animals rights, analagous to human rights (primate rights, for instance), but I’d prefer to start with the more basic rights such as the right not to be killed and tortured.
There’s certainly nothing egotistical about the state being obliged to show equal concern for all citizens and even less about the idea that it it must grant citizenship to all beings willing and capable of reciprocity. I also find nothing egotistical about the application of the principle within groups of interacting beings who are capable of reciprocation to a more or less equal degree. Don’t get me wrong: I can see very clearly that more and better application of the reciprocity principle would mean less exploitation and great improvement to society (especially for carthorses 🙂 ), and as far as these aspects go I’m all for it. However, I still see problems and limitations which I think you ignore too easily. As I said above, I think we should only demand reciprocity from beings who are fully capable of it, so I would want to amend the principle from “we only owe moral concern to beings who are capable and willing to reciprocate”, to something like “when dealing with beings who are capable of reciprocating, we only owe moral concern to those beings who are willing to do so”. I think I’ve said enough about that further up.
But I think we’re both starting to repeat ourselves slightly, so maybe it’s time to give this discussion a rest for the moment, interesting though it is.
I think one of the duties a state has is to ensure that citizens do receive some of what they are owed in the form of old age benefits. To do otherwise allows people to become victims of their own financial illiteracy, and the state is ultimately responsible for the financial illiteracy of its citizens, because the state is responsible for ensuring that citizens are well-educated.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no moral difference between withholding necessary medical resources and withholding food and water or assisted suicide. The consequence is the same in all of these cases and in all of these cases we could have changed the outcome by modifying our behavior. I think we can justify withholding resources or assisted suicide if this allows other people to live, particularly if those other people make larger social contributions, but I don’t think we can deny that when we do this and people die, we are killing these people. And you’re right that if we did not kill these people in these cases where there are others who contribute more who could be saved instead, I would say that we are committing an act of exploitation.
I deny your claim that I am showing concern on the basis of what animals are–the value of economic contributions is that they contribute to the happiness of moral actors. Emotional and psychological contributions to happiness are every bit as much contributions to happiness as material contributions. Pets deserve concern because they contribute to the happiness of their carers, not because of what they are. If cuddly animals are more often able to contribute to the happiness of people than less cuddly animals, they are more often capable of reciprocity and more often deserving of moral concern. The fact that “cuddliness” is an arbitrary aesthetic criterion does not make this distinction arbitrary because the aesthetic difference can result in a genuine psychological different in the amount of happiness generated. That said, I would like to point out that in practice, many people do have an affection for non-cuddly animals and many people do care about sustainable ecological diversity (there are also some economic reasons for the latter, independent of our aesthetic tastes), so there are many non-cuddly animals that do reciprocate. For instance, I myself have a pet tortoise, and I have a general affection for reptiles. All this said, I will readily concede the de facto anthropocentric implication, but again, this only arises because human beings are the only moral actors in the system right now. If salamanders could recognize and respond to moral reasons, salamanders could be moral actors, and it’s very possible that, for reasoning salamanders, human beings are not willing or capable of reciprocity. Under reciprocity, we can understand legitimate conflicts in which both groups are not willing or capable of reciprocating with each other, such that it is morally permissible for each group to deny concern to the other, even as the members of the groups are owed concern by their fellow members.
Okay, let’s say we have a person who is owed nothing and does not economically reciprocate (for the reasons I mentioned at the top, this is not a very likely practical case, because states are responsible for citizens’ education or lack thereof). How do we determine psychological reciprocity in this case? Here’s how I’d do it–the state should treat this sort of person like an animal shelter treats its animals. It should make it publicly known that it is caring for this person and that if no one claims this person, the person will be euthanized to avoid exploiting taxpayers at some specific date and time. If no one claims this person, clearly the person is not psychologically contributing. If someone claims this person, that someone should become responsible for providing for the person’s care. If the claimant lacks ability to pay, the claimant should be evaluated by a psychologist to ensure the claim is genuine (i.e. that the person really does care deeply about the person’s welfare) and then the state should subsidize the care up to a minimum standard. I agree that it would make for an excellent sci-fi novel.
I think there’s a question that I keep asking that you’re less interested in, which is “why should a person care about morality in the first place?” What are a person’s reasons to care? Ultimately, I think that a person has reasons to care about morality because morality creates sustainable conditions under which those who follow moral principles can have good lives. For this reason, I think we must be able to justify our moral principles to moral actors, we must be able to show them that they have reasons to care about the moral systems we propose they follow. If you think about infants and very young children, they are deeply narcissistic and egoistic. When they have a need, they cry and throw tantrums until they get what they want. People only grow out of egoism because they learn that acting in a narrowly egoistic way will not serve wide egoism. They learn that if they are narrowly egoist, they will go to hell, not have any friends, alienate their loved ones, miss out on opportunities, and in so many other ways be denied happiness. Morality is a tool by which we broaden and widen people’s egoism, to show them that they do have reasons to care about others. If we try to make morality do more than that, if we try to get people to care about beings that they do not have reasons to care about, we risk undermining the validity of the system. When acting immorally brings greater rewards than acting morally, the result is immoral action and indifference to morality.
So the reason the last man gets to do what he wants is that he is the only being who can recognize and respond to moral reasons. The moral system that governs him ought to be one that he has reasons to follow. If he has no reason to follow it, why should he follow it? Because he is a sadist and an arsonist, he cannot have reasons to care about these other beings, so if we ask him to care about these other beings anyway, we are on a fool’s errand. If any of the other beings were capable of recognizing and responding to reasons, those beings would be justified in opposing the last man, and we’d have a legitimate conflict. The last man would then have a reason to avoid acting on his sadistic arsonist impulses–the possibility that this would result in opposition to him and eventually death. In that situation, we could then say that even though the last man is a sadistic arsonist, he has reasons to reciprocate with the other reasoning being(s) so that it/they will not oppose and kill him. In the absence of that other reasoning being, the animals are justified in opposing the last man, but they can’t understand this or respond to it, so it’s irrelevant to them and to the last man, even though it is still a moral fact.
But perhaps you’re right, perhaps we’ve begun going in circles. I’m glad you like the implications for carthorses. 🙂
I was going to stop this discussion, but…
I think one of the duties a state has is to ensure that citizens do receive all of what they are owed in the form of old age benefits, as long as they’re capable of making use of them. In fact I would go even further and say that a state has the responsibility to ensure that all citizens have enough to live on, even when they can no longer work and even if they aren’t owed anything. No matter how much a state does in terms of the financial education of its citizens, there are always going to be some people who think “I’m not going to live that long” or “We’ll see about that when the time comes”, etc., so that in a totally optional system there are always going to be some who fall through the net. A conservative would say it’s their own fault (assuming sufficient financial education) so they should suffer the consequences, but a little thought about free will and autonomy should be enough to answer that objection. In other words I would look at this in terms of solidarity and redistribution, rather than in terms of people being owed things. I know this opens up the danger of a certain amount of exploitation of the more-reciprocating by the less-reciprocating, but that doesn’t bother me unduly (see below).
You’re quite right that the consequences of withholding necessary medical resources, withholding food and water, and assisted suicide, are identical for the recipient. What I find much more relevant to the reciprocity discussion, however, is that the consequences for the rest of society do not form a mirror image of this, and are generally not identical. As I pointed out, given that medical resources tend to be more scarce than food and water, the consequences for the rest of society of their being withheld from someone, while perhaps potentially the same, are nearly always very different in practice. Only in exceptional situations, such as in a lifeboat or during a famine, would they be the same in practice. In most situations, then, we might be justified in withholding necessary medical resources, but not in withholding food and water or demanding assisted suicide. I think this is an important distinction which a moral theory should take into account.
I wouldn’t argue with anything you say regarding cuddly, non-cuddly and ecologically valuable animals, but I don’t think any of it contradicts the main point I was making in my last comment. I was trying to distinguish two kinds of reciprocation and referred to one as ‘true’ reciprocation, the other being by implication false, but I think it might have been better to call them ‘active’ and ‘passive’. Active reciprocation depends, then, on something the being does or does not do, and might be dependent on the extent to which a being which is capable of reciprocation is actually willing to reciprocate, whereas passive reciprocation only depends on the being’s innate properties, i.e. what it is. It would then seem much more ‘fair’ to decide whether a being deserves moral concern on the basis of its active rather than its passive reciprocation, just as discrimination between humans on the basis of their actions seems more ‘fair’ than discrimination based on something like skin colour. I admit that it’s a fairly irrelevant distinction in the case of animals if we assume that they are ‘just following their instincts’, and if you don’t believe in free will and autonomy at all then it collapses completely, as no being, human or otherwise, has any more control over what they do than over what they are. In actual fact one of the ‘suggestions for a better alternative’ which I offered a few comments back (when talking about ‘negative’ duties we should only demand reciprocity from beings who are definitely fully capable of it) does depend on the existence of something like free will, so I may have to give that one a bit more thought. One thing I do like about the reciprocity principle is its complete independence from the free will and determination debate (which is why, I suspect, as you said in your original post, “some people take the view that reciprocity views are […] perhaps not even moral views in the first place”). But even regardless of the question of free will, as far as the reciprocity principle goes ‘reciprocating’ is effectively synonymous with ‘being in some way useful to the moral actor’, which makes this distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ reciprocation completely irrelevant anyway, and a follower of that principle is quite justified in considering whether a being is capable and willing to reciprocate, without trying to make any distinction between the two terms. And in so far as it is dependent on the existence of free will, this distinction is pretty useless to me as evidence of the ‘unfairness’ of the reciprocity principle, so let’s forget about it.
I was perhaps stretching things a bit too far in comparing the accordance of moral concern on the basis of mushy qualities and cuddliness with an ‘Animalist View’, although I do see a certain similarity. It’s true that an ‘Animalist View’ considers only the inherent properties of a being, whereas the reciprocity principle considers the relationship between those properties and the needs and desires of the moral actor. For a given moral actor with a given set of needs and desires, however, the only relevant factor in deciding whether a being deserves moral concern is indeed the inherent properties of that being.
You say that “Under reciprocity, we can understand legitimate conflicts in which both groups are not willing or capable of reciprocating with each other, such that it is morally permissible for each group to deny concern to the other”. Acknowledgement of the role played by reciprocity considerations does indeed help us to understand conflicts, but I don’t really see the advantage in labelling such conflicts as ‘legitimate’ or ‘morally permissible’. The way I generally see things, such conflicts are simply part of the natural order, the process of cause and effect, the law of the strongest and survival of the fittest, where such terms are totally meaningless. A group of lions (or humans) might be involved in a conflict with a group of tigers (or humans) over hunting grounds, and they might both be involved in a very different sort of conflict with a group of gazelles. Such conflicts are completely natural, but it makes no sense to discuss whether they are ‘legitimate’ or ‘morally permissible’. Such terms only have meaning in the context of ‘civilisation’, which is the conscious human effort to intervene in this state of affairs so as to improve on nature, and of which moral philosophy is a part. Nature isn’t ‘fair’, and fairness, right, wrong, good and evil are all human inventions. The moral actors involved in any conflict have a natural tendency to consider their own interests before those of anyone else, so the only way to resolve conflicts is to look at the situation from a higher level and impartially consider what might be best for the entire group of moral actors taken together. If there is a higher authority to impose such an impartial view on the conflicting parties then we have no problem, but otherwise there are only two choices: the conflicting parties attempt to use their rational faculties and their imagination to see things from a higher level themselves, or they effectively abandon any attempt at a ‘civilised’ solution and resolve the conflict ‘the natural way’ by fighting it out. The first option is the most difficult of the two because, as you frequently point out, it is impossible to know that others will hold the same moral views we hold, we cannot be sure that they will return the concern we show, and that leaves us open to exploitation. As far as I can see, the application of the reciprocity principle in such a conflict situation simply means accepting the natural tendency of moral actors to consider their own interests before those of anyone else, and labelling as ‘legitimate’ the natural method of resolving such conflicts: the strongest wins.
Within a particular group, on the other hand, I see more use for the reciprocity principle, as a weapon against exploitation. It is, however, a weapon which is equally useful against any type of exploitation, whereas we should perhaps be asking ourselves whether every type of human relationship which would be defined as ‘exploitation’ under the reciprocity principle is equally bad and equally in need of eradication. Suppose we consider two kinds of exploitation,
A: exploitation of the poor by the rich, and
B: exploitation of the rich by the poor.
At the risk of upsetting a lot of conservatives I would suggest that exploitation of type A is much worse than that of type B, for three reasons:
– The same amount of exploitation has much more serious consequences for the poor than for the rich. If a family which was only just surviving were to lose 10% of its income, they might lose their home or not have enough to eat, whereas if Bill Gates were to lose 10% of his income, he probably wouldn’t notice unless someone told him about it.
– Exploitation of type A increases inequality whereas exploitation of type B reduces it, and inequality is bad for society as a whole.
– Exploitation of type A, if allowed to happen, would tend to continue indefinitely, the rich becoming ever richer and the poor becoming ever poorer, until some sort of catharsis occurred, whereas exploitation of type B would tend to run out of steam as inequality decreased. So, although both are problems, B is a self-solving problem whereas A is a self-perpetuating one.
In a perfect world, with the reciprocity principle perfectly applied, no one would be exploited by anyone else, but I fear that in our imperfect world, because of its failure to take such differences in types of exploitation into account, and because those who are already in a position of power tend to be able to manage the ways in which principles are applied in practice, it would be just as likely to lead to increasing as to decreasing inequality. I’m making this up as I go along BTW, and you may well point out some gaping hole in my logic. I’m also rambling a bit and straying off the pure moral-philosophical point, but I like what I’ve just written so I’ll let it stand.
You’re right that I haven’t paid enough attention to your question “why should a person care about morality in the first place?”, and it is indeed very relevant to this discussion. In practice, at the moment (as I’m sure you pointed out somewhere), people’s reasons for acting morally are generally based on a mixture of various, generally irrational habits and emotions, such as religion or fear of what others might think or of what the police and the courts might do. Unfortunately religion is unreliable, and although it can make bad people do good things for the wrong reasons, it can just as easily make good people do bad things. Fear of disapproval or punishment only leads to moral behaviour at the cost of living in a police state, and even then some people are very ingenious at bending the rules and avoiding punishment. So we need something better, and that means educating people to look at the wider picture, to see things from a higher level, and to realise that life is generally more pleasant if people cooperate and have respect for each other than when they act in a short-sightedly egotistical way. However, this is only true on average for the whole group, and as soon as we depart from a purely egotistical standpoint there are always going to be situations where an individual is worse off than they would be if they were to act directly in their own interest, and where they know about it. This isn’t surprising, as what we are doing in setting up civilisations and moral systems is attempting to replace the ‘natural’ situation, where the distribution of resources is determined by competition and strength (the law of the strongest, survival of the fittest) and luck, with a man-made system which is better for the group as a whole (regardless of what we mean by ‘the group’). This inevitably involves redistribution and levelling, from the better-off (in any respect) to the worse-off. People tend not to have too much trouble with the elimination of the ‘luck’ aspect, as it’s easy for someone to imagine that they too could become the victim of sickness or a natural disaster, and they see systems to solve that sort of problem as being of possible direct benefit to themselves (although lots of them still have quite a lot of trouble with it – see the US health care system). The elimination of the ‘survival of the fittest’ aspect is more difficult, as certain individuals are inevitably going to be worse off than they would be if nature were to have taken its course. A particularly strong, resourceful and intelligent guy might have a good job and a bigger house and car than his next-door neighbour, but without all those laws and taxes he might not have to work at all and would have the next-door neighbour as his servant. Many others think they would have been better off without the levelling effect of civilisation, even when they probably wouldn’t have been.
So, the problem we’re faced with is this: how do we convince those individuals to cooperate with a system which they think (and sometimes quite rightly) is not to their individual benefit? How do we persuade them to act against their own interests and in favour of those of the group? Three methods have generally been used:
1. Changing the way people think and feel, and persuading them to see themselves as part of a greater whole and to consciously forego their direct individual interests and act for the benefit of that whole. This effectively means changing human nature so that people become less egotistical.
2. Fooling people into thinking that they do have a direct individual interest in cooperating with the system when in fact they may not.
3. Setting up mechanisms of incentives and punishments so that people really do have a direct individual interest in cooperating with the system, in order to obtain rewards or avoid punishment.
Communism and nationalism have generally used method 1. The reason why nationalism has done so well in recent centuries is because of its success in harnessing the universal human instinct to identify with a group, and channelling it into patriotism. Millions have been more than willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the group, i.e. their country. Communism theoretically tries to persuade people to act for the long-term good of the whole of humanity, but in practice tends to limit itself to certain classes and to make much use of patriotism and group identification. When a feudal or capitalist system is being overthrown and replaced by communism, large groups of people (the workers, the peasants, the down-trodden masses generally) really do have reason to believe that the new system will be in their direct individual interest, and so have a good incentive to cooperate with it. Others (e.g. land owners, even very small scale ones) have no reason to believe that the new system will be good for them personally, and so do not have this incentive; they have to be coerced into cooperating. Unfortunately, once the down-trodden masses are no longer down-trodden, that incentive disappears. The western religions have relied heavily on method 2 (promises and threats of Heaven and Hell), and while some eastern religions have used method 1 to a great extent (using methods such as meditation to change the way people think and feel), they are also not above using method 2 (karma and reincarnation). Neither method 1 nor 2 alone has ever been sufficient, and method 3 is always required as well. I don’t think there has ever been a society, no matter how religious, patriotic or fervently communist, which didn’t also encourage good behaviour using a system of rewards and punishments. As we can see from history, all these methods have their limitations. This is all very simplified and schematic of course, but you get the idea.
So, where do your theories fit into this schema? Your main emphasis seems to be on method 3: the setting up of mechanisms of incentives and punishments so that people really do have a direct individual interest in cooperating with the system. That method can never be sufficient, however, because people are so ingenious at bending the rules and avoiding punishment. Only a society with very little privacy and much more intensive surveillance than is technically possible at the moment (a ‘1984’ type society, or one with a ‘hive mind’) would have any hope of getting people to behave well using only method 3. That leaves us with methods 1 and 2, but you seem to have very little faith in method 1. You seem to accept the fact that people are egotistical and always will be, and that there’s no point in trying to change them. That leaves method 2: persuading people that is in their direct individual interest to follow the rules and be sociable, rather than just in the interest of the group, even when it actually isn’t.
You seem convinced that the reciprocity principle has this sort of persuasive power, for the simple reason that it doesn’t demand too much of people. But I think it’s fairly arbitrary where exactly you place the limit of what a moral system may demand: there will always be people who find it goes too far, and others who would be prepared to go further. Many people will not be convinced that they owe moral concern to the citizens of some far-away country just because the government (whom they didn’t even vote for) regards that country as an ally. You finish that story about the ‘animal shelter’ for humans who are incapable of reciprocating by saying that the state should subsidize care up to a minimum standard for those who are ‘claimed’ by people without the means to support them. I can assure you, there would be plenty of citizens who would object to their tax dollars being wasted on some useless person just because someone else whom they don’t even know has some sort of an emotional attachment to them (the same sort of people who’d vote for some of those borderline lunatic Republican candidates, and they should get a role in the book 🙂 ). On the other hand (I hope) many people would find some of the consequences of the reciprocity principle too egotistical.
You say that morality is a tool by which we show people that they do have reasons to care about others, and that we should not try to make morality do more than that, and to get them to care about beings that they do not have reasons to care about. What you mean is that they have egotistical reasons to care about others, i.e. that in the long term, caring about others is actually good for them personally. But in reality, for any given individual, the link between many of these “reasons to care” and any benefit that individual might hope to receive because he cares is tenuous at best, and frequently non-existent, so what you’re actually trying to do is to get people to believe something which isn’t really true: caring about others is certainly good for the group as a whole, but not necessarily in a particular case for any given individual. The reciprocity principle might be described as a useful fiction, or possibly a useful oversimplification, which, if enough people believed in it, would make life a lot better.
It’s true that if everyone (or nearly everyone) believed in and acted according to the reciprocity principle, the world would be a wonderful place, but there again the same could be said of christianity or communism. The main big plus-point I can see in the reciprocity principle is its simplicity and consistency, and that would certainly help as a selling point in getting large numbers of people to believe in it. However, I believe that this simplicity and consistency are largely an artefact of your way of working, i.e. your tendency to oversimplify and to provide simple yes/no answers to questions such as ‘does a being reciprocate?’ and ‘does a being deserve moral concern?’ which are actually much more difficult and require much more complex answers. Real life isn’t that simple, and the application of such a strict and simple moral principle to a complex reality results in all kinds of consequences which I, personally, find unacceptable, and to a few which I’m convinced most people would find unacceptable.
I hope that’s gone some way towards answering your question “why should a person care about morality in the first place?”, although I doubt if you’ll find it a satisfying answer. I’m not entirely satisfied either with what I’ve written, but it will have to do for the moment. To answer the question properly we’d have to go much further into such questions as ‘what is the purpose of moral philosophy and what can it do for us?’, ‘how fixed or malleable is that thing which is generally referred to as human nature?’, and last but not least ‘what are we aiming at and what sort of society do we want?’. Unfortunately I don’t have the time (not to mention the ability) to go deeply into such questions right now. I’m trying to run a business here and this is the busiest time of the year for us, and furthermore it’s really good weather at the moment so I have to go to the beach a lot 🙂 . I wrote this comment in ten minutes here, half an hour there, in between other things and sometimes even instead of other things which I really should have been doing (which is my excuse for any inconsistencies, contradictions and repetitions it might contain!). When I started writing I was going to finish by agreeing that we’ve begun going in circles, in fact I was going to suggest that we’ve been talking at cross-purposes and not getting through to each other and that it was time to stop, but right now I have the feeling we might actually be getting somewhere. I’m clarifying my own ideas for myself anyway, which is something. So I’ll be very interested to read what you have to say in reaction to the above and I will certainly answer any comment you make, but it might well take me a week or two to get round to it.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about my view (at least not in this discussion) is that I think that when the state grants citizenship to a person, it takes responsibility for that person’s future behavior. So if a person fails to reciprocate as expected, the state cannot blame the individual for the failure or deny the individual concern, but must rectify its mistake by rehabilitating the individual and changing the policies that caused the individual to fail to reciprocate. Generally I take the view that if reciprocity is going to be denied, it should be denied as part of denying the person citizenship, and only on the basis that the state truly believes the person is not capable of reciprocating now or in the future. So I’m more likely to hold that the state should euthanize infants with severe cognitive impairment than I am to hold that the state should euthanize adults who have made large substantive contributions in the past. When the state grants citizenship to a person, it does this knowing that the person will eventually become old and implicitly accepts this.
The distinction you draw between medical care and food or water seems to be based on the fact that the former is far more scarce. I agree that this often means we can do more good by denying care to one person and giving it to another than we can by denying food to one person and giving it to another, but I don’t think we can deny that when a person dies as a result of being denied any resource, we are just as morally culpable for that consequence as we are if we deliberately euthanized them. The action is defensible in the health care case not because we are any less causally responsible for the death, but because there are large offsetting benefits (e.g. the people whose lives will be saved by the resources are greater in number or more valuable to society in their capacity to reciprocate). Because I don’t believe in free will, and don’t take blame into account, all that matters for me are the deaths we cause and the saved lives we cause, whether we cause those deaths and saves by action or inaction.
I agree that my rejection of free will plays a huge role in the way my theory of reciprocity operates and that it does collapse the distinction between active and passive reciprocity. I also think it is impossible to have an attractive theory of reciprocity if you believe in free will, because free will would imply that whenever people do not reciprocate, they are blameworthy. If I believed in free will, I would have to believe that it’s okay for the state to shoot anyone who doesn’t reciprocate.
I think the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate conflict is useful because it helps us to see situations where we cannot realistically expect the participants in the conflict to resolve their differences in a civilized way without imposing an additional level of structure. In a legitimate conflict, I don’t think it is realistic to expect either party to look at it from a higher level–they have no reasons to do so, and if they do so they will very likely be exploited. In an illegitimate conflict in which one group attacks another group that is reciprocating and poses no threat, the attackers are behaving irrationally and their aggression is therefore illegitimate. To this point, most just war theories only recognize defensive wars as legitimate, but sometimes offensive war is legitimate if it puts a stop to exploitation. While we could not reasonably expect a country to stop attacking another country that is in some way exploiting them, we could expect a country to recognize that its attack is not serving any compelling interest and cease and desist. Consider Iraq or Vietnam, for example–these are illegitimate conflicts not because the US was the aggressor but because the US was attacking countries that were not in any meaningful way exploiting the US. In contrast, when say, Britain fought France during the Napoleonic Wars, there was legitimate concern on both sides that the opponent was failing to reciprocate and seeking to impose an exploitative arrangement. We could not and should not have expected either Britain or France to stand down voluntarily in the Napoleonic Wars (and indeed, it was resolved by force), but we could expect the US to stand down in Vietnam and Iraq because it had no legitimate security interest at stake (and this is what eventually happened/will happen). There are many people in America who recognize this and want us to get out of Iraq, but there were very few people in Britain or France who suggested a halt to the Napoleonic Wars. This is because the Napoleonic Wars were fundamentally more rational than the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, they were more in line with reciprocity. A detached observer with no special national loyalty would look at the Napoleonic Wars and go “How unfortunate for both sides, if only there were an international structure”, but that same detached observer would look at Vietnam or Iraq and go “What were the Americans thinking? So pointless and wasteful!”
I submit to you that Type B exploitation is okay because it is a response to Type A exploitation. Type B is a legitimate response to exploitation and type A is illegitimate conflict. I submit that reciprocity is the best way to explain why B is okay and A is not. The reason inequality is so objectionable is that it is so exploitative. The state fails to provide for equality of opportunity and allows intergenerational perpetuation of inequality, failing in its duty to show equal responsibility for the interests and potentials and all of its citizens.
I don’t see the reciprocity principle as a type 2 strategy, I really do see it as a type 3. I think reciprocity helps us to look at our interests from a long-term standpoint, and this helps us to see that in many cases where it might seem that we have a short-term interest in anti-social behavior, we do not have such an interest in the long-term. I think type 2 is fundamentally dishonest and that smart people will always see through it. I think type 1 is impractical because the costs for individuals are too high–indeed, I think a full type 1 society would be swiftly conquered by some more egoistic external society. I don’t think it is good for a person to be less egoistic unless all people that person interacts with are also made less egoistic. Because the type 1 strategy is so bad for the individuals that believe in it, I see it as more or less synonymous with type 2–to tell someone that they ought to care universally about beings that may not reciprocate with them is to lie to them about their interests by telling them they have reason to care when often times they have no such reasons, and indeed they often have strong reasons not to care (e.g. to avoid exploitation).
I do think it is possible for the state to create an incentive system that full actualizes reciprocity. I think the state has not even really begun to try to do this, and I think that future technologies will only make it easier. Even today, it is often not in your interests to murder someone not because you are guaranteed to be caught but because if you are caught, the consequences are generally far more significant than any benefit you might receive. When this is not the case, the state can and should ask itself why you thought the benefits of murder were so large or the seriousness of the risk of being caught so low, and it can and should adjust its policies in response, either to rebalance the incentive system so that it does become rational to do what the state wants or to prevent people from becoming so irrational that they ignore the incentive system and act against their own interests. In most aspects of life, there are very simple changes the state could make today that would create a vast amount of harmony between the social and individual interests. The chief obstacle is the belief that people should act in a pro-social way regardless, and that it is their fault individually when they fail. Take the financial crisis–we used to have a strong regulatory system and international financial system that would not have allowed the financial crisis to happen, but we dismantled it. When the crisis happened, people got mad at the bankers for behaving anti-socially, but there was no push to fully restore the system that created strong incentives against anti-social behavior. We blamed bankers and banks instead of the incentive structure. This happens all the time–we target individual actors and blame them instead of looking at our problems in the systemic way reciprocity combined with non-belief in free will encourages. Of course the banks acted anti-socially–we allowed anti-social incentives to persist. We should not have expected the banks to fall for a type 1 or type 2 moral theory, we should have made type 3 arrangements. We could have done this easily if we recognized that only the incentive system can ever be worthy of blame, never any individual.
As far as subsidizing the poor person’s moral claim goes, it makes no difference whether or not most people support this policy as long as the incentive structure is sufficient to compel them to obey the law anyway.
There would be a great deal more complexity in my answers to the question “who is worthy of concern” and “does a being reciprocate” if I believed in free will. Because I do not believe in free will, I’m more interested in whether or not a being is capable of reciprocity now or in the future if the state adequately incentivizes, encourages, and creates opportunities for that reciprocity. It is much easier to identify a person who could not reciprocate no matter what the state does than it is to identify which people will fail to meet their reciprocity potential, but because the state is responsible for failures to meet reciprocity potential it is unnecessary to judge individuals on this basis. If an individual is not meeting potential, we simply say that the state must rectify this by changing the incentive structure. The cost of having to care for citizens who do not reciprocate due to state policy failures is an important way we maintain an incentive for the state to take this kind of action. The state must pay a cost when it wastes the potential of a citizen, and this cost comes in the form of having to rehabilitate non-reciprocating citizens. If we simply let the state execute those who fail to meet their obligations, the state has much less incentive to ensure that people meet their obligations.
You’re quite right that there are numerous other arguments implicit in this one that we probably don’t have time to talk about:
1. I do think that human nature is not very malleable in a practical context–it might be malleable over the course of many generations or with technology that does not yet exist, but it is not sufficiently malleable to completely redesign the way we weigh and evaluate reasons within the time frame necessary to solve our pressing moral and political problems.
2. I do think moral philosophy’s purpose is to help its practitioners live better lives, and I think the best way to do this is by helping them take a more enlightened, long-term view of their interests.
3. I do think we want a society that maximizes the happiness of its members, and I think the best way to do this is by maximizing the extent to which the reciprocal potential of its members is actualized.
Regarding citizens who are no longer capable of any sort of reciprocation, you seem to have been moving gradually towards my position and now seem to be agreeing with me that the state has a duty to support them, so we may not need our ‘animal shelter’ for humans idea after all. It might still make a good SF novel though 🙂 .
You seem to be missing my point slightly on the distinction between withholding medical care on the one hand and food or water on the other. As far as I’m aware I never attempted to “deny that when a person dies as a result of being denied any resource, we are just as morally culpable for that consequence as we are if we deliberately euthanized them.” What I did say was that the consequences of withholding necessary medical resources, withholding food and water, and assisted suicide, are identical for the recipient, but (because of the scarcity factor) the consequences for the rest of society are generally not identical. Therefore we might be justified in withholding necessary medical resources, but not in withholding food and water or demanding assisted suicide, and this has nothing whatsoever to do with blame.
The way the free will question relates to reciprocity is quite interesting. On the one hand you don’t believe in free will, and so you don’t believe that people are blameworthy when they do not reciprocate. I’m sure they’ll be very glad to hear that. On the other hand, by setting up a system of rewards and punishments to encourage good behaviour, you are acting as if free will exists and people are blameworthy. I believe that ultimately, in the deepest philosophical sense, free will does not really exist, but seen subjectively, i.e. from the point of view of the individual, free will does exist, and if it didn’t, any form of punishment would be totally immoral. You say “If I believed in free will, I would have to believe that it’s okay for the state to shoot anyone who doesn’t reciprocate.” But presumably you do find it OK for the state to put someone who doesn’t reciprocate in prison. Any deterrent, even a financial deterrent such as a fine or extra taxes, needs to be backed up by ‘harder’ measures up to and including prison. Every judicial system assumes that people are personally responsible for their actions, and are only guilty of a crime when acting out of their own ‘free will’. If someone commits a crime because they’re insane, or because someone is pointing a gun at their head or holding their family hostage, then they’ve got a pretty good defence. Yet again, I seem to be coming to the conclusion that things aren’t quite as simple as you present them.
Regarding legitimate and illegitimate conflicts, the parties involved always see their own cause as justified and their own actions as legitimate. Even in the cases of Iraq and Vietnam, the pro-war people in the US brought up lots of arguments in support of the idea that the enemy country was acting in a way which was likely to damage America’s interests, if only indirectly and in the long term. In Vietnam, for instance, there was the domino theory which saw communism as a sort of contagious disease which had to be stopped. It’s only by looking at things from a higher level (i.e. by being a detached observer who can apply rational principles in an honest and impartial manner, and/or with the benefit of hindsight, at a safe historical distance) that you, I or anyone else can decide that the Napoleonic Wars were “more rational” than the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. But regardless of how “rational” a particular war might be, the detached observer will hopefully arrive at the conclusion that fighting a war is not the best way to resolve the conflict, and if this detached observer happens to be a force (such as a regional power, a world government or a ‘United Nations with teeth’) which has the means to enforce this conclusion and stop the war, it will presumably do so. We cannot deny that this may be to the disadvantage of the stronger party in the conflict (i.e. the party which would have won the war were it to have continued), but that’s what happens when you override the ‘natural’ system known as the law of the strongest. What I’m saying is that even without said higher enforcing power, the opposing parties (well, the stronger of the two, effectively) have it within their own power to ‘look at things from a higher level’ and do exactly what an impartial observer would have recommended. What you are saying is that we should not “expect either party to look at it from a higher level–they have no reasons to do so, and if they do so they will very likely be exploited.” In the case of the stronger party this is certainly true, but the real question is, what do we want: the law of the strongest or something more ‘civilised’? And then we come back to the same point we keep arriving at, where you say I’m demanding too much of people… BTW, it’s true that most just war theories only recognize defensive wars as legitimate, but there are notable exceptions. In spite of his well-known pacifism, Bertrand Russell expounded some very different ideas (much more similar to yours in fact) in his essay The Ethics of War which I wrote about here.
I agree with what you say about ‘type A and B exploitation’, and I’m glad you didn’t find any gaping holes in my logic! It could be said that type A exploitation must take place first, i.e. the rich must have originally exploited the poor in order to have become rich in the first place, and that type B exploitation is a justified reaction to this. I wouldn’t object to this view, although it could be interpreted as implying that the ‘original position’ or ‘state of nature’ is one of equality, whereas I think it’s more true to say that people do not start out equal (different people have different strengths and abilities), and that ‘equality’ is a human invention. On the other hand, if we look at the way animals relate to each other we do find the sort of natural inequalities I’m talking about here, but we don’t find the sort of gigantic inequalities we see between humans. Inequality on that scale has only become possible due to human inventions such as property, money and enormous hierarchically organised social structures. So, a certain amount of inequality may be natural, but gigantic inequalities are a human invention which we can legitimately try to uninvent!
The reciprocity principle is certainly for the most part a type 3 strategy, but I don’t think you’re really responding to the arguments I presented for saying that it also contains an element of type 2. What I’m talking about is the fact that what is good for society as a whole isn’t necessarily always good for every single individual, and those individuals have to be persuaded that it is. You’re quite right that states could do a lot more than they do now to set up systems of incentives and deterrents to persuade people to act in ways which are good for society as a whole, and you give a very good example by citing the way the deregulation of the banking sector was responsible for the financial crisis. I’m not sure I’d agree that “The chief obstacle is the belief that people should act in a pro-social way regardless, and that it is their fault individually when they fail.” I would say that our moral theory defines how individuals should be acting, and we need this sort of ideal in order to know how to set up the systems of incentives and deterrents which will ensure, as much as possible, that people really do act that way. As I said further up, every system of incentives and deterrents assumes in practice that people have free will and are responsible for their actions, and without that assumption any form of punishment would be totally immoral. I don’t have quite as much faith as you do in the practicability of perfecting such systems without ending up living in a police state. On the other hand I have more faith in the malleability of human nature, but let’s not get started on that discussion – we’d first have to define ‘human nature’ for a start! Unfortunately I also find myself agreeing to a great extent with your pessimistic expectation that “a full type 1 society would be swiftly conquered by some more egoistic external society”, which very much reminds me of the ending of Aldous Huxley’s Island. Conclusion: we need a world government – but we knew that already.
As regards points 2 and 3 in your last paragraph, I wouldn’t disagree with a single word, although if we went into the fine practical details I’m sure we’d soon find plenty to disagree about!
Yeah, I think the state acquires a lot of duties to a person when it grants that person citizenship. To the extent that we disagreed on this point, I think it was because I was not entirely sure we were talking about citizens from the outset–I thought perhaps we were being more general.
If this is your distinction between witholding medical care and food, then I don’t see what you mean by what you said a few comments up about positive and negative obligations:
“We are not obliged to improve the world for their benefit, but we should at least avoid making it worse for them.”
What I have been arguing is that there is no moral difference between these things. You seem to be saying that you agree with me on that, that it is only justifiable to withhold a benefit from a morally relevant being insofar as this allows a larger benefit for some other morally relevant being. But what your original claim implied was very different–your original claim implied that it would be justifiable to withhold medical care from some beings even if there was no benefit to any other morally relevant being from doing so. E.g. if there is a sick squirrel that does not reciprocate and has no relationship with any of the members of our moral community, I do not see any moral distinction between refusing to benefit that squirrel and actively harming it. In both cases, I don’t think you’re treating the squirrel with any level of moral concern at all. I don’t think there is a difference. So for that reason, I think we are pushed to ask the basic question of whether or not the squirrel is morally relevant. If you say it is on any level whatsoever, I don’t think it’s consistent to maintain that you can fail to improve the world for its benefit.
I agree with some system of rewards and punishments because I believe that most people cannot help but respond to incentives and deterrents. I do not believe they freely choose to respond, and when they fail to respond I blame the incentive system, not the individual. When the state puts someone in prison, this should have nothing to do with punishment. There are several good reasons to put people in prison:
1. To deter people from committing crimes
2. To rehabilitate criminals
3. To protect the public from criminals
Punishment and retribution ought to have nothing to do with it, it is never the criminal’s fault that the criminal must go to prison, and except insofar as it’s necessary as a deterrent, prisons should be pleasant places. Judicial systems fail to recognize this, leveling penalties in a punitive way that has nothing to do with deterrence, rehabilitation, or protection. It’s a moral disgrace.
I’m not denying that whenever an illegitimate war is fought, there are some people who believe the war is in fact legitimate. But when the war is illegitimate, it becomes possible for some citizens to point this out, and if they try hard enough they can win the debate and cause the war to end. The Vietnam and Iraq wars ended because many people began to see that those wars were illegitimate. These people rejected the arguments for those wars. There was no need to look at it from any higher level–the Iraq War was wrong because the Iraqis did not exploit us and were not capable of doing so. It was wrong because it was a waste of money, lives, and resources. It did not advance American interests, and the people who thought it did so were wrong. These wars ended because people realized they were illegitimate and said so loudly. If the Iraq and Vietnam wars were actually good for the United States and if the Iraqi and Vietnamese peoples were exploiting us or were a serious threat to do so, we would have continued fighting those wars.
In the Napoleonic Wars, it was not clear which power was stronger and both states had legitimate fears of being exploited by the other (that’s what make it a legitimate conflict as opposed to an illegitimate one). If the British had decided to look at things from a higher level and attempted any non-military solution with the French, the French likely would have taken advantage and exploited Britain. If the French had decided to look at things from a higher level and attempted any non-military solution, the British likely would have exploited France in the same way. Countries cannot resolve legitimate conflicts without military force unless there is already existent some higher level power (e.g. a world state). It is not rational to attempt to do so because there is a very high risk that if you do, the other country will seize the opportunity to destroy you and eliminate the threat you pose. To expect countries to resolve legitimate disputes from a higher level without the presence of a world state is to expect countries to act in a suicidal manner, and moral theories should not demand suicidal behavior from their practitioners.
In an illegitimate conflict, reciprocity gives the stronger power many good reasons to back off even if the stronger power does not take a higher level view, so the higher level view is not necessary. In a legitimate conflict, taking a higher level view is a suicidal move and is not good or desirable. So having states take a higher level view is not the solution in either case–in illegitimate conflicts, the states should consider their reciprocity obligations, and in legitimate conflicts, the states should appeal to a world state if one exists and fight it out if one does not.
You are of course correct that there are other international relations theorists and philosophers who have held that other kinds of wars can be just aside from self-defense (most of them are IR realists). Russell’s view is very interesting, because it implies a view about human progress that many people are reluctant to take today. I’d be interested in discussing it, but I fear digressing too far.
Looks like we agree on Type A and B exploitation.
I think part of the reason I don’t see reciprocity as in any way a type 2 strategy is that I don’t see incentives as persuasive tools but rather as devices that actually change what it is in the interests of people to do. So if you don’t want to pay taxes and I say that if you do not pay taxes, you will be fined or sent to prison, I am not trying to persuade you to do something that is not in your interest, and I am creating a situation where it is genuinely in your interest to pay the taxes, because you really are better off paying and continuing to live as a free person than you are refusing to pay and becoming a prisoner.
I don’t think this in any way assumes free will, I think it really does change our interests and the actions that are consistent with those interests in ways that most human beings cannot help but be responsive toward. When the incentives are insufficient, it is never the individual’s fault and always the fault of the system of incentives. To the extent that we penalize individuals for failing to comply with incentives, we should do this only insofar as this deters, rehabilitates, and protects. We should not presume that this in any way implies their personal responsibility and we should not inflict any more penalty than is absolutely necessary to achieve these other ends.
Glad to hear we have so much agreement on our fundamental assumptions (with the exception of human nature malleability).
When I said “We are not obliged to improve the world for their benefit, but we should at least avoid making it worse for them.”, I was talking about our possible obligations to distantly future people: the idea that we should hand the world on to future generations in at least as good a state as we found it. The point I was making was that such moral concern for distantly future people can easily be justified on sentience grounds, but if we limit our sentience views using a strict system of reciprocity then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do things which are good for us and for those who reciprocate with us but which will result in the end of the world in 100 years time. I talked quite a bit about positive and negative duties further up, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. I find the distinction a useful one in many cases, including this example about withholding medical care versus withholding food or water. Another obvious example would be how we should relate to wild animals: we shouldn’t hunt them to extinction or destroy their habitats, but we are not obliged to protect the gazelles from the lions and then feed the lions intravenously or with gazelle-flavoured soya steaks. You also say that my “original claim implied that it would be justifiable to withhold medical care from some beings even if there was no benefit to any other morally relevant being from doing so.” Where do I imply that, exactly? It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d normally say on purpose. I’ve never denied that the distinction between ‘harming’ and simply ‘not helping’ can be a vague and arbitrary one. I was also surprised to hear that Peter Singer doesn’t make any distinction between positive and negative duties, and commented “Maybe the distinction I want to make is too vague and arbitrary to be useful. I really must read more of him.” Am I contradicting myself somewhere? I don’t see it, but neither would I claim that it’s entirely impossible, so I won’t pursue this line of argument until I’ve done a lot more reading. I have a lot of respect for Peter Singer, and maybe I also have a lot more to learn from him.
I agree with you regarding the reasons for putting people in prison, and that punishment and retribution ought to have nothing to do with it. It is indeed a moral disgrace that punishment and retribution do play such a large (and officially sanctioned) role in judicial systems, and that so many people find this quite acceptable. What I also find a moral disgrace is the fact that in most if not all countries, the punishment starts as soon as someone is arrested. Anyone who’s ever had the experience (and has survived the actual arrest procedure, which seems to be becoming increasingly unlikely these days) knows that cells in police stations are anything but pleasant places, and that many of the rules and systems in use are actually designed to make one’s stay as unpleasant as possible. So even if you’re later found not guilty and released, you’ll still have had to suffer (and sometimes quite severely) from the pre-trial, police-imposed punishment for the ‘crime’ of having been a suspect. So much for being innocent until proven guilty! I’m frequently amazed that so few people seem to know or care about this. But I digress…
I’m glad we agree so well on Type A and B exploitation and on our fundamental assumptions, but on the subjects of legitimate and illegitimate conflicts (and the application of the reciprocity principle to international relations more generally), and whether the reciprocity principle is a 100% type 3 strategy, I think we’re starting to repeat ourselves and go round in circles. I don’t have anything new to add to what I’ve already said, and I don’t really see you adding anything new either. So maybe it’s time to give it a rest for the moment. A very interesting discussion though, which I’m sure we’ll get back to some time.
To grant medical care for a being is to acknowledge a positive duty to that being. If you would have a duty to grant medical care to the squirrel (assuming that granting this benefit harmed no one else), I don’t see how you could deny a duty to protect the gazelle. But surely you don’t have a duty to protect the gazelle, so how could you have a duty to give treatment to the squirrel? I don’t see how the fact that the gazelle is in peril from a lion makes the gazelle case meaningfully different from the case of a squirrel that is simply ill. In theory, you could protect the gazelle from the lion and then feed the lion tofu.
I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Singer.
We’re in full agreement on punishment.
I’m happy to continue at a later time. Good discussion!
I don’t think we have a duty to grant medical care to a sick wild squirrel, and I don’t think I ever said that we do. If we’re talking about a pet squirrel for whom we’ve accepted responsibility, that might be different. You’re quite right that there’s no real difference between the gazelle and squirrel cases, but I don’t think we have a positive duty in either case – only a negative duty not to harm them unnecessarily. Of course, you don’t recognise any difference between positive and negative duties, but let’s not get started on that again…
I read Animal Liberation and some other animal-related stuff many decades ago, and I know that I agree with much of what Peter Singer says. Practical Ethics is high on my reading list, and I’ll certainly write and publish something about the book once I’ve read it. Anything else by Singer that you’d particularly recommend? BTW, I haven’t forgotten Derek Parfit, who’s also on my reading list. Any other books of which you’d say that anyone who’s interested in moral philosophy definitely should have read them???
Off the top of my head, here are a few essential contemporary moral phil books if you haven’t read them yet:
On What Matters by Parfit
Writings on an Ethical Life by Singer
Theory of Justice by Rawls
Justice for Hedgehogs by Dworkin
Freedom and Belief by Strawson
Thanks for the recommendations. My reading list is getting ever longer!