Peter Singer on racism and speciesism

In an interview with George Yancy, Peter Singer discuss the origins and nature of racism and speciesism: “I don’t see any problem in opposing both racism and speciesism, indeed, to me the greater intellectual difficulty lies in trying to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and even practicing the other. And here we should again mention another of these deeply rooted, widespread forms of prejudice and oppression, sexism. If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex? … The more perceptive social critics recognize that these are all aspects of the same phenomenon. The African-American comedian Dick Gregory, who worked with Martin Luther King as a civil rights activist, has written that when he looks at circus animals, he thinks of slavery: “Animals in circuses represent the domination and oppression we have fought against for so long. They wear the same chains and shackles.”

Do chimpanzees have rights?

A New York state court heard arguments that chimpanzees can be considered persons with some legal rights. In connection with that case, the philosopher Peter Singer argues that there is no good reason to keep chimpanzees and apes in prison: “The ethical basis for extending basic rights to chimpanzees and the other nonhuman great apes is simple: chimpanzees are comparable to three-year-old humans in their capacity for self-awareness, for problem-solving, and in the richness and complexity of their emotional lives, so how can we assign rights to all children and not to them?” And if chimpanzees have any kind of rights, can chimpanzees who were research subjects in developing vaccines that save human lives be left to die on an island when no longer needed for research?

The problem with moral psychology

You can’t learn about morality from brain scans. Thomas Nagel’s review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes. Many interesting issues in the review: human rights v. the greatest happiness of the greatest number, trolleyology, moral instinct, and others.

Nagel says of Greene: “Greene wants to persuade us that moral psychology is more fundamental than moral philosophy. Most moral philosophies, he maintains, are misguided attempts to interpret our moral intuitions in particular cases as apprehensions of the truth about how we ought to live and what we ought to do, with the aim of discovering the underlying principles that determine that truth. In fact, Greene believes, all our intuitions are just manifestations of the operation of our dual-process brains, functioning either instinctively or more reflectively. He endorses one moral position, utilitarianism, not as the truth (he professes to be agnostic on whether there is such a thing as moral truth) but rather as a method of evaluation that we can all understand, and that holds out hope of providing a common currency of value less divisive than the morality of individual rights and communal obligations. ‘None of us is truly impartial, but everyone feels the pull of impartiality as a moral ideal.'”

Nagel isn’t so sure and explains why.

Dignity’s due

Why are philosophers invoking the notion of human dignity to revitalize theories of political ethics? Samuel Moyn’s review of two new books about human dignity outlines a history of the concept of human dignity, including Kant’s role in redefining the idea. “One philosopher, however, the German Enlightenment sage Immanuel Kant, thought about human distinction precisely in terms of dignity—namely, the priceless worth conferred on us by our freedom to choose. … Kant insisted that man’s ‘rational nature’—our ability to set ends—makes every human life of highest value, and indeed provides the basis of all value in the world.”

The review goes out to show the tension between the deontological idea of respect for human dignity and the utilitarian value of humans caring about the welfare of others : “Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle. A consensus about dignity may have become deep enough for us to insist that the state not torture, but it has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation. Isn’t that undignified?”