Adventures in Ethics and Science

As a brief follow-up to my post thinking about Dr. J’s view that cats are a special class of being that ought not be used in research, I would like to assert that:


Some deontological approaches may be grounded in rational arguments while others are grounded in assertions. Kant, for example, offers something like an argument that your valuing anything requires that you value the rational capacity in yourself and in others. Kant’s rational argument could provide a basis for the claim that you shouldn’t lie to others. But you could also believe that you shouldn’t lie to others because lying is wrong.

Providing a rational argument to support your ethical commitments may sway someone who doesn’t start out sharing your commitments. But it may not. Much depends on whether your argument rests on premises the other person accepts, and on whether your logic is persuasive.

If you can’t provide a rational argument to support your ethical commitments, the best you may able to do is to point to them and hope that some of the others with whom you are dealing share them. There’s nothing prima facie wrong with your having commitments that you didn’t come to through rational argument. But if you can’t provide good reasons for preferring these commitments to others (the sorts of reasons that a rational argument would lay out), you can’t really expect others to take your commitments as their own.

We’ve talked about this sort of thing before.

Then there’s the quite separate issue of which lines of empathy are enforced by society (whether through laws, other regulations, or interpersonal pressures of various sorts). It’s quite possible to have deep empathy for cats, or for babies, or for supermodels. It’s also quite possible to lack feelings of empathy for cats, or for babies, or for supermodels.

No matter what you feel, or don’t feel, for them, society will have something to say about what you may do to cats, babies, and supermodels, and what you cannot do to cats, babies, and supermodels. What society permits and what society forbids will at least roughly reflect who the members of society understand to be in their moral community — and it’s worth noting that animal welfare laws suggest that cats are seen as falling somewhere in that moral community.

In other words, your empathy (or lack of empathy) may provide grounds for your behavior, but the rules of society also provide reasons to act in certain ways.

However, if there’s too big a mismatch between your deep feelings of empathy and the societal center of empathetic gravity reflected in the rules of society, you may want to consider shopping around for a society that better reflects your values.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    June 19, 2009

    Much depends on whether your argument rests on premises the other person accepts

    This is the key point that I think tends to get overlooked in the whole animal-testing debate. The fact is that “pros” and “antis” frequently have fundamentally different moral premises with regard to animal welfare, and no amount of argument (much less accusations of “cruelty” or “irrationality”) is likely to change that, at least in the short term. We just end up shouting past each other.

    (There is, of course, a whole other argument about whether and to what degree the respective sides apply their chosen premises consistently, and what that says about their sincerity and good faith.)

    There’s nothing prima facie wrong with your having commitments that you didn’t come to through rational argument.

    We all have some commitments which we didn’t come to through rational argument.

    However, if there’s too big a mismatch between your deep feelings of empathy and the societal center of empathetic gravity reflected in the rules of society, you may want to consider shopping around for a society that better reflects your values.

    Or you can attempt to reform your society to better agree with your views. It’s been done many times before, and most people in current society would argue that we’re better for it. I’m sure you don’t need me to enumerate the various groups who were at one time excluded from the “moral community”, but are now (at least partially) included within it.

    I’m certainly not an “anti”, but it does grate a little when certain “pros” start arguing that there is only one possible rational position to take on the matter. As you say, it’s largely a matter of societal values. And societal values have this funny way of looking very different in the rear-view mirror…

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 19, 2009

    Of course, shopping around for a better society could include fixing up the one you’ve got.

    But, to the extent that rational argumentation, and even displaying your empathetic commitments, won’t always change hearts and minds, there are instances where flight may look like a better option than fight.

  3. #3 sprout
    June 19, 2009

    Shopping around for another society, when there may not be one, is in effect bullying.

    I have the same perspective as Dr J re cats, and don’t care if that puts me in a minority. Further I have no empathy for babies (or super models), which puts me in an even smaller minority, but I will not be bullied into going along with the ‘moral’ majority.

    We will have to agree to differ. I wouldn’t loose a second of sleep if late term babies were experimented on. (or evenvivisectionist’s kids).

    Unfortunately I have to put up with the current status quo, but that doesn’t mean Dr J can not be supported in any way , within the law.

  4. #4 sprout
    June 19, 2009

    and censorship is another form of bullying.

  5. #5 fia
    June 19, 2009

    Thank you so much for this post! Great. I agree 100%.