Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ideas Have Consequences

Tibor R. Machan

My discipline, philosophy, is often lambasted for being too abstract, for not dealing with concrete matters, for not being practical. Socrates took a lot of flack for devoting much of his time to searching for fundamental principles and definitions of prominent ideas, such as justice, truth, and virtue. I’d be very rich if I had a buck for each time someone has told me over the decades that philosophy is useless.

Perhaps this is simply the fallout of a common attitude. That is for people to favor the significance of their line of work over and above all others. A great many economists, I can personally testify, are good at this--nothing is as relevant and pertinent to our lives as economics! Some have even written for a book unabashedly titled “economic imperialism.” But many sociologists, psychologists, biologists, and the rest exhibit such chauvinism as well.

In recent weeks there has been evidence of the practical impact, mostly for the worse, of certain philosophical ideas and the prestigious position of those who propound them. I am talking about animal “rights” or liberation champions, like the now world famous Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer.

First, in Spain the government has declared that great apes have the rights to life and liberty, rights that had been understood to belong only to human beings. It isn’t immediately obvious how this legal declaration is going to be implemented--do they have a lot of great apes in Spain? But it probably will have an impact at zoos and circuses, as well as, and more importantly, at medical research centers. And that, in turn, will very likely pose impediments to certain activities, some vital to human well being, others less so.

On this side of the Atlantic the animal rights/liberation doctrine has had dire consequences and continues to be deadly for human beings. The New York Times recently editorialized against making DDT available for fighting malaria around the world, in part because some penguins in Antarctica were found to have a little of it in their bodies. No, they didn’t die of this, nor seem to have had any serious illness associated with it but merely because there is that possibility, based on Rachel Carson's terribly influential 1964 book, Silent Spring! And admittedly there is evidence that DDT has done harm to the eggs of some birds.

So what? Why shouldn’t some birds suffer, even die, in the effort to improve the chances of human beings to survive certain deadly diseases? Well, because, as animal rights/liberation advocates like Singer (and another philosopher, Tom Regan), maintain, it would be to unjustly harm these animals to permit DDT to be used to help human beings.

This misanthropic doctrine is widely promulgated in various publications, including the most recent issue of Philosophy Now which has devoted most of its pages to making the case for animal rights/liberation. Sadly, no opponents to the doctrine were given space, although in fairness that's partly due to the simple fact that very few philosophers are on record defending the use of animals for purposes of helping human beings even with fatal medical problems such as malaria. It is estimated that millions of Africans have died because of the influence of Rachel Carson and other opponents of the medical use of DDT.

In much of moral philosophy or ethics it is taken as an article of faith, though not much defended, that human beings ought to live lives of self-sacrifice. As Singer put it, several years ago, “Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of mankind than any other liberation movement, since animals are incapable of demanding it for themselves, or of protesting against their exploitation by votes, demonstration, or bombs.” So even though animals routinely kill and maim fellow animals for their own benefit--albeit, as a matter of their hard wired instincts, not from free choice--there is something lowly about human beings making use of other animals for their own good. Why so?

Nothing much of an answer is given to that question--indeed, in Singer’s case, it rests, ultimately, on his intuitions or, as I would call them, sentiments. What is needed is a vigorous philosophical and related defense of human life and flourishing, including human rights, and rejection of a sadly widespread misanthropic outlook that goes nearly unopposed now in the community of moral philosophers.

Tibor Machan is the author of Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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