Tuesday, December 2, 2008

To Save a Mouse

Here is Jamie Berube responding to Peter Singer on Down Syndrome. Berube's post comes on the heels of a debate I recently had about Peter Singer and his ideas on "animal liberation." I have not read Animal Liberation, but I have been researching Singer's ideas and have identified two major problems with his ethical theories:
  1. Animals and man do not have "similar interests." For Singer, all moral decisions are made by using the calculus of "equal consideration of similar interests." For an illustration of how this calculation works, I refer you to Singer's FAQ:
    Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?
    A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something -- that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life -- that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.
    Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates).
    That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
    If such a process of reasoning had actually taken place in a burning building, both men and the mouse would have perished. Of course, Singer doesn't expect anyone to actually go through this reasoning. It's enough that you equate the two species at all (lest you be branded a--gasp--speciesist).
  2. Singer sets up a straw man by arguing against "intelligence" as the criterion for differentiating humans from animals. Singer argues that a normally functioning Great Ape is technically more intelligent than a brain-dead person. But it's not only intelligence that differentiates us from animals: our most distinguishing characteristic is that reason is our basic means of survival. No other animal survives by reason, no matter how intelligent.
These are my two major problems with what I understand Singer's position to be. Unfortunately, tackling either one would require an essay-length response, and a blog is not the proper venue for that. However, I do plan on returning to Singer, and the "animal liberation" movement, in the future; this is not an issue that is likely to go away anytime soon.