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Creepy-Crawlies and the Long Dreamless Sleep

image of large spider silhouette at night

In graduate school, I lived in a dingy little apartment near the sea. My apartment faced a slough, beyond which was the water. On the wall next to my door was a bright light. At first, I could turn this light on and off. But after a year or two, some men came and altered the light to make it stay on all night. The area around the light and the eave above it became a den of death. At night, droves of insects would emerge from the littoral darkness of the slough to flap and buzz in a confused frenzy around the light. Dozens of spiders awaited them. When I entered my apartment, I could see the insects wriggling pitifully in their webs.

The situation became too much for me. The spiders started to draw their webs over my door. A nasty one sprung on top of my head. I decided to take drastic action. I found a sprayable toxin for killing insects and arachnids, some horrible thing with a sickly sweet chemical smell. In the morning, when the spiders were hidden in their crevices, I sprayed the toxin all around the den and leapt back. For one second, nothing happened. And then, all at once, thirty or forty large spiders began to erratically descend, desperately clinging to threads of silk. They were writhing as the toxin destroyed them. Some of them curled as soon as they hit the ground. Others stumbled off before dying. It was horrible. I couldn’t shake the thought that those spiders, like the insects they caught in their webs, died in pain.

My colleague, Daniel Burkett, has recently written about some new empirical research which suggests that insects can experience pain. Burkett argues that if insects (or spiders, which are arachnids) can experience pain, then that pain matters morally and thus we have defeasible moral reason to avoid causing them pain.

The basic thought is that pain is inherently bad no matter where it occurs, and it’s unacceptably arbitrary to discount a creature’s pain simply because that creature isn’t a human being (or isn’t cute or friendly or lovable).

Burkett’s argument is unsettling. It implies that I may have done something terrible when I slaughtered those spiders.

I agree with Burkett’s basic argument. We have pro tanto moral reason to refrain from inflicting pain on any creature, no matter how creepy or crawly. However, I do not think (as Burkett seems to) that this means we have pro tanto moral reason to avoid swiftly killing insects, for example swatting mosquitoes or squashing lanternflies. First, I doubt that the process of swiftly swatting or squashing a creepy-crawly causes a morally significant amount of pain. Being swiftly swatted is analogous to being vaporized in an explosion. The process totally destroys the creature’s body (rendering it incapable of experiencing pain), and the destruction occurs in a fraction of a second. Second, it does not follow from the fact that we have moral reason to avoid causing a creature pain that we have moral reason to avoid painlessly killing it. And there are good reasons for thinking that painless death is not bad for insects in any morally relevant sense.

To see why, let’s take a step back and talk about why death is bad generally.

When someone dies, they permanently cease to exist. The dead are beyond any sort of experiential harm. The dead can’t suffer; the dead can’t feel distressed, sad, bored, or lonely (it’s true that the dying process can be painful, but dying things are still alive). The imperviousness of the dead to any sort of suffering raises an ancient philosophical puzzle:

why is death bad for or harmful to the dier at all? And why is painlessly killing someone wrong, apart from how this affects people other than the victim?

One popular answer is that death is bad for a dier if and because it deprives the dier of good things that the dier would have had or experienced had they not died when they did. Consider a person who is instantaneously vaporized by an explosion at forty. Suppose that this person would have lived another forty good years had she not been vaporized. The explosion is not bad for the victim because it causes her pain or distress; actually, the explosion renders her completely impervious to pain and distress. Rather, the explosion is bad for the victim because it prevents her from experiencing those good years and thereby makes it the case that there is less total good in her life than there otherwise would have been.

A related answer is that death is bad for a dier if and because it frustrates the dier’s desires and curtails the dier’s projects. Many of our desires are directed toward the future and can give us a reason to go on living. For example, I want to visit space someday. Unlike a desire to, say, get a cavity filled, this desire gives me reason to try to stay alive until I can achieve it. If I were to die in my sleep tonight, this desire would go unsatisfied. Arguably, even if I don’t feel sad about it, it’s bad for me if this desire is never fulfilled. My life is worse as a result, all else being equal. Similar things can be said, mutatis mutandis, about many ongoing projects that are cut short by death.

These explanations of death’s badness presuppose that the dier is a temporally extended subject. All living things are temporally extended in a physical and biological sense, of course. But persons are extended through time in a psychological sense, too.

My current self is connected to my past self by a continuous chain of beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, character traits, and so forth, which change over time in regular, familiar, and typically gradual ways. For example, I now have a memory of an experience my twenty-year-old self had while riding a rollercoaster. And if I live till forty, my forty-year-old self will be similarly connected to my current self. For example, my forty-year-old self might remember writing this essay. On top of this, I have desires and projects that are directed at the future. For example, I want my forty-year-old self to be happy. All this explains why it makes sense for me, now, to identify with my future self, and why it would make sense for me to feel self-interested dismay if I were to discover that I won’t make it to forty after all.

Now imagine a human being, M, whose internal mental life is completely discontinuous from day to day. M wakes up every morning with new desires, preferences, and intentions, which are all directed at the day to come. M has enough general knowledge to function in a basic way but no autobiographical memories of past days. When M goes to sleep at night, M’s mental life is erased and rebooted in the morning. Effectively, M’s mind is a series of distinct, evanescent subjects, each of which occupies a small fraction of a temporally extended biological whole.

Death would not have the same significance for M as it has for you and me. The main reason is that when M dies, this is less like cutting a person’s life short and more like preventing a new person (i.e., a new iteration of M) from coming into existence. And this makes a difference.

Morally speaking, killing a person is quite different from preventing a new person from coming into existence. Look at it from M’s perspective. If on Monday M discovers that M’s body will be vaporized in sleep on Friday night, it’s hard to see why M should, on Monday, be disturbed about this in a self-interested way. After all, M’s desires and projects are all directed at the immediate future, and the psychological subject who exists on Monday is going to disappear on Monday night in the reboot. Thus, the vaporization won’t terminate an ongoing internal life that M, on Monday, is a part of, or even one M is invested in. And for this reason, the vaporization is not going to deprive the M who exists on Monday of anything or frustrate any of M’s desires or projects. It’s as if someone else is being vaporized.

This suggests that the extent to which death is bad for a dier depends on the extent to which the dier has a complex psychological life – a psychological life that has future-directed elements and is unified over time by a continuous chain of beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, character traits, and so on.

With this insight, we are in a position to return to the issue of whether death is bad for insects, spiders, and the like.

Death is bad for creepy-crawlies only if they have temporally extended mental lives that are unified over time through reasonably thick chains of mental states like beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, and character traits.

And while some insects have the ability to remember things and execute somewhat complex tasks (bees have a relatively sophisticated spatial memory that can be used to navigate, for example), it seems overwhelmingly likely that at most very few creepy-crawlies have brains that are sophisticated enough to support such chains, much less desires and projects directed beyond the specious present that could give them a reason to continue living. In other words, creepy-crawlies probably live in the present to an even greater degree than M does. Brain size alone would seem to suggest this. Mosquito brains only have about 200,000 neurons. For comparison, human brains have 86 billion.

The upshot for our purposes is that death probably isn’t bad for creepy-crawlies, and therefore it seems doubtful that we have any pro tanto moral reason to avoid painlessly killing them (or rather any reason unrelated to the side-effects that killing them might produce). This is consistent with saying that we should not cause insects pain and that painful methods of killing creepy-crawlies, such as my sprayable toxin, are objectionable. But swatting and squashing is probably fine.

This line of reasoning is somewhat comforting to me. Scientists estimate that there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects alive at any given moment. Most of those will die very soon. Fortunately, that probably isn’t bad for them. However, like the insects in the den of death outside my old apartment and the arachnids I slaughtered, many of those insects will suffer a great deal in the dying process. The weight of that collective suffering is unfathomable. I can only hope that our tiny brethren pass swiftly into the long dreamless sleep that awaits us all.

Is the Pain of Wild Animals Always Bad?

Close-up color photograph of a screwworm fly on a green leaf.

Should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? This question has received some attention as of late. Consider, for example, Dustin Crummett’s recent article here at the Post.

In response to this question, I suggest that it is not clear what types of animal suffering are bad. Consequently, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on their behalf. I will outline what I think are several types of pain, but I still suggest it is unclear whether human beings should intervene.

Before we hit it off, notice what this question is not. It is not a question of negative obligation: “should humans act in such a way that causes animal suffering?” This question, when we answer “no,” means human beings have a negative obligation to not cause harm. For instance, this question of negative obligation arises in the recent prohibition of a geothermal project in Nevada, a project which could threaten an endangered species of toad.

Instead, the present question is a positive one. When, if ever, should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? Crummett’s example of the New World screwworm is poignant and motivates us to intervene on behalf of suffering animals. The New World screwworm causes excruciating pain for the prey, and its elimination would not apparently result in ecological harm. In other words, its elimination would only seem to benefit the would-be-prey.

As Crummett argued, human beings ought to reduce wild-animal suffering. To make this point, Crummett entertains an example about a dog that lives in a poor state of experiencing cold, disease, and hunger before dying at an early age. He then uses this example to discern what is bad about the situation, and what is good about helping such an animal. He writes,

Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life.

Though this all seems intuitively plausible to me, I remain unconvinced. Even if I assume (for the sake of argument) that humans should prevent animal suffering, it is not clear what counts as suffering.

When I reflect upon pain more generally, it is not apparent to me that all kinds of pain are bad. Sure, I don’t like experiencing pain (except for going to the gym, perhaps). But we are talking about morals and value theory, not experience — when something is morally bad, it is not necessarily reducible to my experiential preference.

So, are all pains bad? Consider some different types of pain. In his recent monograph, philosopher David S. Oderberg distinguishes between three types of pain (distinctions not unlike the ones which St. Augustine posits in his little book, On the Nature of Good):

    1. Useful pain;
    2. Pain achieving;
    3. Useless pain.

A useful pain alerts you to something for a good reason. For example, it is useful to experience pain when you burn your hand on a hot stovetop; it is also useful to experience the pain that accompanies going to the gym.

“Pain achieving” is the pain that can accompany the successful operation of an organism’s natural operation or function. For example, pain achieving is the pain a child experiences with growing pains or when growing teeth.

Useless pain, in contrast, is pain that may alert you to an issue but serves no purpose. For example, a useless pain is the pain of chronic nerve damage or that of a phantom limb. This useless pain is useless because the alert it gives cannot successfully motivate the individual to react, or because there are no underlying issues or malfunction of the body to account for this.

According to Oderberg, only useless pain is bad. While the former pains might be unpleasant for the individuals in question, they are not always bad. Indeed, it is good that we experience a high degree of pain when we burn our hands on stovetops — why else would we move them? Surely, if we as human beings only had red lights go off in our peripheries whenever we were burned, it would not be as motivating.

Of the three options, Oderberg’s position that only useless pains are bad seems correct.

But notice a further complication. Even when the pain serves a further good, it can be bad in itself. As philosopher Todd Calder points out, while money can have a good of utility, it is intrinsically neutral. So too with pain. It might be a good of utility, but it could still be bad in itself.

This distinction between types of value explains why pains of utility can still be bad in themselves. While the pain of a sprained ankle is bad because it causes me to be irritable, it still can be bad in itself as a painful experience.

With these distinctions in mind, we come back to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering?

It seems that the second distinction between intrinsic value and utility does not help us here. For, if all pain is intrinsically bad, and human beings ought to prevent all pain, we experience a moral overload. This is unrealistic, too onerous. Moreover, this conclusion would require us to intervene in all instances of pain, without discrimination regarding the kinds of pain and the degree of pain. Are we really to consider cases of an animal with a thorn in its side as serious as the case of an animal with a New World screwworm? Certainly not.

The first distinction instead offers a clear answer to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering? Only if it is bad. And is the suffering of wild animals bad? If the suffering in question is an instance of useless pain, then yes.

To achieve a resounding “yes” to the original question, we need two things. First, we need a good reason for the assumption we started off with: that human beings are obliged to prevent animal suffering because it is bad (and such prevention amounts to a good act). Is this the case? I have not yet seen a good reason to believe it. Second, we need to see that there are instances of useless pain in wild animal suffering. Could the case of the New World screwworm count as an instance of useless pain? Perhaps. But it looks like it can count as an instance of ‘pain achieving’ as well. Because of this, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on behalf of wild animals.

Should We Intervene to Help Wild Animals?

photograph of deer in the snow

The parasitic larvae of the New World screwworm consume the flesh of their living hosts, causing pain which is “utterly excruciating, so much so that infested people often require morphine before doctors can even examine the wound.” At any given time, countless animals suffer this excruciating pain. But not in North America – not anymore. Human beings have eliminated the New World screwworm from North America. This was done to protect livestock herds, but innumerable wild animals also benefit. In fact, eliminating the screwworm from North America has had “no obvious ecological effects.”

All of us should be happy that wild animals in North America no longer suffer the screwworm’s torments. I argued in an earlier post that if something has conscious experiences, then that entity matters morally. Suppose some stray dog experiences cold, hunger, and disease before dying at two years old. This is a bad thing, and if some person had instead helped the dog and given it a nice life, that would have been a good thing. Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life. But then, the exact same thing can be said about wild animals who do not suffer from the screwworm because humans drove it out.

So we have helped many wild animals by eliminating the New World screwworm, and we should be happy about this. The question then becomes: what if we intentionally intervened in the natural world to help wild animals even further? In South America, they still suffer from the New World screwworm. And they suffer from many other things all over the world: other parasites, disease, starvation, the elements, predation, etc. In principle, there may be quite a lot we can do to alleviate all this. We could eliminate other harmful parasites. We could distribute oral vaccines through bait. (We already do this to combat rabies among wild animals – again, this is for self-interested reasons, so that they don’t serve as a reservoir of diseases which can affect humans. But we could expand this for the sake of the animals themselves.) In the future, perhaps we will even be able to do things which sound like goofy sci-fi stuff now. Perhaps, say, we could genetically reengineer predators into herbivores, while also distributing oral contraceptives via bait to keep this from causing a catastrophic population explosion.

If we can do these things and thereby improve the condition of wild animals, I think we should. In fact, I think it is extremely important that we do so. There are trillions of wild vertebrates, and perhaps quintillions of wild invertebrates. We don’t know exactly where the cut-off for the ability to suffer is. But because there is so much suffering among wild animals, and because there are so many of them, it seems entirely plausible that the overwhelming majority of suffering in the world occurs in the wild. Since this suffering is bad, it is very important that we reduce it, insofar as we can.

Of course, we’d better make sure we know what we’re doing. Otherwise, our attempts to help might, say, upset the delicate balance of some ecosystem and make things worse. But this is not a reason to ignore the topic. It is instead a reason to investigate it very thoroughly, so that we know what we’re doing. The field of welfare biology investigates these questions, and organizations like the Wild Animal Initiative conduct research into how we can effectively help wild animals. It may turn out, of course, that some problems are just beyond our ability to address. But we won’t know which ones those are without doing research like this.

Many people react negatively to the idea that we should intervene to help wild animals. Sometimes they suggest that what happens in the natural world is none of our business, that we have no right to meddle in the affairs of wild animal communities. But aiding wild animal communities is merely doing what we would want others to do for our own communities, were they afflicted with similar problems. If my community suffered widespread disease, starvation, infant mortality, parasitism, attacks from predatory animals, etc. and had no way to address any of these problems on its own, I would be quite happy for outsiders who had the ability to help to step in.

Others worry that intervention would undermine the value of nature itself. They think the untamed savagery of the natural world is part of its grandeur and majesty, and that “domesticating” the natural world by making it less harsh would decrease its value. But, as the philosopher David Pearce has noted, this is plausibly due to status quo bias: an emotional bias in favor of however things currently happen to be.

Suppose we lived in a world where humans had greatly reduced disease, starvation, parasitism, etc. among wild animals, thereby allowing a much higher proportion of wild animals to live long, flourishing lives. Does anyone really think that people in that world would want to put those things back, so as to restore the majesty and grandeur of nature? Surely not! And anyway, I am not at all sure that improving the condition of wild animals would make them less grand or majestic. If someone, say, finds some baby birds whose mother has died and cares for them, are they making nature less grand or majestic – even a little bit?

Still others pose a religious objection: they worry that intervening in nature would mean arrogantly “playing God,” interfering in the natural order God established because we think we can do better. But we already use technology to protect ourselves, and our domestic animals, from natural threats – disease, parasites, predators, etc. And if anything, people think God wants us to do that, likes it when we express love for others by helping them avoid suffering. Why should the situation with wild animals be different? In fact, in this paper, I gave a theological argument in favor of intervening to help wild animals. I note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally viewed humans as having been given a special authority over the world by God, and then argue that, if anything, this gives us a special obligation to exercise this authority in helping wild animals.

So: we should do what we can to help wild animals. As I’ve said, there is quite a lot of work to be done to figure out what is the best way to do this. But that just makes that work more urgent.

The Ethics of Dark Tourism

photograph of neon Cecil Hotel sign

In February 2020, Netflix released a four-part docuseries called Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The series focuses on the death of Elisa Lam, but along the way it tells the story of the building. It was built in the 1920s with all of the glamour that is often associated with hotels of that age in that area. The hotel struggled during the Great Depression. It is located on skid row, and eventually it became a common resting point for the city’s poor. The Cecil is infamous for the deaths that have taken place there and for the fact that two famous serial killers, Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, stayed there during the period in which they were actively killing people. A season of American Horror Story was based on the folklore that surrounds the Cecil Hotel.

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old student at the University of British Columbia. She vacationed in California in the early months of 2013. Several days into her trip, she checked into the Cecil Hotel. It was frequented by international travelers because it was inexpensive and functioned as a hostel. These travelers were also largely unfamiliar with the hotel’s past and as a result they were undeterred by it. During her stay, Lam initially shared a room with some of the hotel’s other international travelers. She was moved to her own room when those travelers complained about her erratic behavior. Shortly thereafter, Lam disappeared. The last known images of her are captured on a hotel security tape. Her behavior is unusual. The police released the tape and the video went viral, causing internet sleuths across the globe to speculate about what happened to her. At times, she appears to be checking for something or someone outside the elevator door. She moves her hands in unusual ways and presses the buttons to all of the floors. Finally, she walks awkwardly out of the elevator and down the hall. She was found weeks later, naked, dead in the water tower on top of the hotel which a maintenance worker checked after guests complained that their shower and tap water was coming out black.

After the series came out, there was renewed interest in staying at the Cecil Hotel. Crime aficionados and ghost hunters were eager to spend the night — preferably in a room in which Ramirez or Lam once stayed. The hotel has been closed for renovations since 2017, but this has not stopped “dark tourists” and social media personalities from sneaking in to take pictures and footage.

Many people would rather visit the home of a serial killer, the location where a famous murder happened, or the site of a natural disaster than a sandy beach or a world heritage site. Dark tourism isn’t new. People often feel powerful connections to some of the world’s most tragic events. This connection is so strong that thousands of people visit Gettysburg every year, not simply to observe a historical site or to pay their respects to the many human beings that died in that battle, but to actually take on roles and act out what occurred there.

People will engage in dark tourism even when there is risk that doing so might be dangerous to their health and safety. For instance, for years tourists have been visiting Chernobyl, the location of the nuclear disaster that led to agonizing death and long-term illness for so many people in the 1980s and beyond. The risk of exposure to radiation has been no source of concern for many tourists who just want to be close to tragedy.

One way of viewing this kind of behavior is as just one form that an interest in history can take, and there is no reason to be critical of anyone for taking an interest in history. Millions of people visit the Tower of London every year. The fact that terrible things happened there is part of what makes it an interesting place. Most cities and the buildings in them have a rich variety of stories to tell. The ability these destinations have to call up our sense of empathy and shared humanity is part of what makes many of us interested in traveling in the first place.

On the other hand, intentions may turn out to matter quite a bit. If a person gets a charge from visiting the home of a serial killer and their preferred vacation destination is a tour of death, that person may have some soul searching to do.

It also might matter whether it is “too soon” to treat the location in question as a place where tourists can get cheap thrills. Since the Battle of Bosworth happened in 1485, it may be the case that no one can be thought of as particularly perverse for experiencing excitement when visiting the location where it took place. If the event occurred in living memory, it may be wise to be more circumspect. There are actual living, breathing human beings that might be hurt by the decision to treat the location of their personal tragedy as if it is a great spot to grab an Instagram photo on spring break. In the case of Elisa Lam, there is good reason to believe that mental illness played a role in her death. When people visit the Cecil Hotel hoping to contact the ghost they believe killed her, it minimizes the real tragedy of what likely actually happened.

That said, it may be that some events were so inhumane that it is never appropriate to visit sites associated with them for kicks. For instance, over the years there has been much discussion about what to do with Hitler’s childhood home. There was discussion for a while of turning it into a museum dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Nazis. In recent years, Austria has decided to tear it down to reduce or eliminate the attraction the location has for neo-Nazis.

In Salem, Massachusetts, visitors can buy a ticket to the Salem Witch Dungeon, which is ostensibly a site to educate tourists about what the trials, imprisonment, and execution of people accused of witchcraft would have been like for those who experienced them. Unfortunately, at many turns the Witch Dungeon is more like a modern haunted house than it is a respectful educational opportunity. When people wearing spooky makeup are hired to generate screams, it can be easy to forget that everyone who was accused of witchcraft was innocent of that charge and that the events that are being reenacted in the dungeons are based on the last torturous days of the innocent.

Aristotle thought that part of what it is to be a virtuous person is to habituate the dispositions to have apt feelings and reactions to one’s circumstances. This requires practice and keeping a close eye on others who have well-developed characters. Having the right response to a location associated with tragedy may not be a matter of avoiding these locations, but, instead, visiting with the appropriate amount of respect and understanding.

Is It Right to Hope for a Politician’s Death?

photograph of newspaper stand with various magazines with Trump on the cover

For a wide swath of the U.S. population, the news that President Trump is COVID-19 positive was not exactly met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many believe that Trump’s dithering, downplaying, and dismissals are in fact responsible for some non-trivial proportion of the country’s 200,000+ COVID deaths — a fact whose significance will become apparent shortly. That he now has the virus strikes many as a delicious irony, and not a few fondly hope and fervently pray that Trump may speedily pass away. But there are plenty of Trump opponents who find this bloody-mindedness unsavory, perhaps even unethical. Thus, we confront the following ethical issue: is it right to hope for a politician’s death?

There is an important caveat to the discussion that follows, which is that even if hoping for a politician’s death may be justified, that does not mean that we are justified in hoping for their deaths. The distinction has to do with our reasons for hope. While a justification might be available for hoping for a politician’s death, that often isn’t the reason why we actually hope for their death. Instead, the reasons why many people actually hope for politicians’ deaths have to do with revenge or hatred, which is not a sufficient justification for so hoping. In short, you aren’t actually justified in hoping for a politician’s death unless your motives for so hoping match the reasons that actually justify so hoping.

Here is an argument I have seen bandied about on social media. Commonsense morality recognizes circumstances under which killing is morally justified: namely, when it is necessary to save the life of a third-party, and more controversially, when it is deserved. If it is true that Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, then it might be argued that his death is both deserved and necessary for the prevention of many future deaths. But if an act that results in some outcome is morally justified, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for, whether it is produced by an act or by some other cause. Therefore, we may hope for Trump’s death.

One problem with the argument is that Trump’s death is not strictly necessary to prevent future death; there are other ways to remove him from power. Nor is it obvious that Trump’s death is even the best, or the most efficient, means of preventing future death. Trump’s death would have many consequences that we can only dimly foresee, many of them probably not good for disease control and prevention. If the use of lethal force is not necessary, nor even the best or most efficient means of protecting third parties from imminent lethal harm, then its use is arguably unjustified. Furthermore, there may be an intent requirement: it may be impermissible to use lethal force to save innocent lives unless the person who threatens those lives intends, or at least can be reasonably interpreted as intending, to kill. Trump’s sin seems more like negligence than intentional wrongdoing.

We might also question whether Trump’s gross negligence really merits death. Generally speaking, the death penalty is reserved for those who commit intentional crimes, not negligent ones. On the other hand, it could be argued that negligence can be so gross that it does deserve death. Questions of proportionality are difficult to pin down with any precision.

It might also be objected that to hope for something is to view it as a good thing, and that we ought to hope for what is actually good. Furthermore, a person’s death is never a good thing, even if to kill that person would be morally justified. Thus, we should never hope for someone’s death. Here we are taking aim at the premise of the argument that says that if an act results in some morally justified outcome, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for. Not so, says the objector: there are outcomes that are always bad, and so ones we should never hope for, even if it is permissible for us to bring them about.

It seems right to say that we should always hope for what is actually good. And it’s true that death is almost always bad for the person who dies. So, we can agree that Trump’s death would be bad for him. But Trump’s death would, ex hypothesi, also be good for many people. And it is also good if people get what they deserve. We can, therefore, plausibly say that what we hope for in the complex state of affairs that involves Trump’s death is that people will be saved, or that Trump will get what he deserves. Thus, there seems to be no difficulty hoping for Trump’s death even if it is bad for him, if what we are really hoping for are the good consequences of Trump’s death or that Trump gets his just deserts. Hope for these things does not involve hope for what is actually bad.

This point also applies to the slightly different objection that hope involves the anticipation of happiness, but we should never be happy about someone’s death. For example, many people thought the spectacle of crowds rambunctiously celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death was unsavory. One reason this might indeed be unsavory is because it involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortune, which seems like a bad thing, although this would have to be argued for in greater depth. It seems possible, however, to hope for a politician’s death in a way that does not involve taking pleasure in anticipating their misfortune, if the object of hope is either the good consequences that will flow from the politician’s death or that the politician gets what she deserves. Here we come back to the point that in order to be justified in hoping for a politician’s death, our motives must match the reasons that actually justify so hoping. If our hope is based on taking pleasure in anticipated misfortune, it may not be justified; but if it is based on the anticipated goods that either flow from or are realized by the politician’s death, it may be justified.

To conclude, it seems that we can be justified in hoping for a politician’s death under some circumstances, although it is less clear that these circumstances obtain with respect to President Trump. There is no special ethical barrier to hoping for a politician’s death in principle, although in so hoping most of us face the ethical pitfalls of vengeful feeling and sadistic pleasure.

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

Climate Justice: Whose Responsibility?

photograph of power plant smoke stacks

Now that the effects of global heating are happening and ecological collapse has begun, we are confronted with a set of urgent questions about justice and moral responsibility in responding to our climate emergency. Climate heating is of course a global problem – and one that is already disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. It is also a problem caused by people in rich countries continuing the unfettered consumption of resources and the failure of our governments to create policies and laws to curb this consumption, to safeguard the environment, and to transition to green economies through the decades of warnings leading up to this crisis.

The moral question of whether we must act is surely answered in the affirmative, and yet a set of questions remain about how to understand that imperative in relation to the issues surrounding disproportionate greenhouse gas outputs of developed, industrialized countries compared to the minuscule contribution of many smaller or less industrialized countries, who are often those experiencing the worst effects.

This is important because the way we understand our responsibilities has the potential to influence how solutions are pitched to the public and how policy might be implemented. Some of the arguments traditionally used to ground the moral duty of people in affluent countries giving money to the poor of the Global South are transferable, with little adjustment, to the area of climate policy.

Firstly, it is a common feature of normative moral systems that ethical ‘rules,’ ‘duties,’ or, more broadly, ethical actions are universalizable. That is, what is right for one person is right for all, and that when a rule prescribes that we act in a certain way towards one person, that is also a general rule, that we act in that way with respect to all persons.

In a globalized world, we often assume the moral community extends to all people. This ‘cosmopolitan’ argument maintains that the sphere of moral concern is global, that no individual falls outside of it. This means that where moral duties or requirements can be shown to exist, they would also extend to include people in different socioeconomic and geographical situations from our own.

Since the 1980’s Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been advocating for what he calls the expanded moral circle, using this basic idea to challenge some of our behaviors. In particular, Singer argues for the alleviation of poverty by those with the means to do so. Using his now famous drowning child example, Singer has argued that if we have a moral duty to save a drowning child who we might otherwise pass by, without sacrificing something of comparable moral value, then we have an equal duty to save a child dying from poverty-induced disease and malnutrition halfway across the world. The only difference is proximity and that, argues Singer, constitutes a logistical, not a moral, difference.

This is the expanding circle of moral concern that our moral duty to alleviate suffering is as strong for children in far away places as it is for our own children or the children next door. On Singer’s view, it would be immoral to spend our disposable income on expensive clothes, toys, or games that we do not need when there are children elsewhere dying in poverty.

Singer’s argument is a version of the argument from humanity, which says that, no matter our relationship to that suffering, whether or not we in some way caused it, our moral duty to alleviate it inheres in the fact that we are able to help. That, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we can send aid to the world’s poor means we have a duty to do so. This humanitarian argument has broad application: our moral duty exists regardless of the cause of the suffering.

There is a different kind of argument a duty of justice according to which we have a moral duty to help others in need only where, and to the extent that, our actions have caused their suffering. This is an argument from responsibility; the exploitation of the Global South has enriched those in the Global North, and the moral imperative for those in rich countries to alleviate poverty is derived from causal responsibility we have a moral duty to provide redress in the form of reparations as a matter of justice.

This argument is narrower in scope. One only has a moral duty, here, according to the extent to which one has been responsible (directly or indirectly? knowingly or unknowingly?) for the suffering of others in far-flung places. But, on the other hand, this argument does embed the need to change our behavior in a way that the humanitarian argument does not.

It should be clear how this is directly transferable to the climate crisis. From a justice perspective, rich, industrialized nations have been burning fossil fuels to power their citizens’ lifestyles at such a rate that the whole global climate system is now tipping out of control. Those least responsible and least able to cope with the effects are already being disproportionately impacted. Therefore rich countries have a moral duty to alleviate the suffering of those in poor countries. (From a humanitarian perspective, rich countries have the capacity to alleviate the causes and provide aid, therefore the moral onus exists because the capacity exists.)

Whether we recognize a duty based in justice because of “polluter pays” kinds of arguments or on humanitarian grounds we owe reparations on the basis of being most able to help could make a significant difference when we start talking about managing aid and paying reparations to those affected by the climate crisis. It might, for instance, be possible to argue, along the lines of a duty from justice, for diminished responsibility based on the argument that no country meant to cause global heating and that those who have are not, or not entirely, culpable. This can be countered by reminding ourselves that there have been enough warnings, and claims about intentions are at best moot, and at worst false. What’s important to note is that these justice arguments rely upon the extent to which responsibility is admitted or can be established.

On the other hand, it might be at least as important to ask which is more likely to persuade people into action. Though for both these questions the best answer would surely be a combination of both, it is worth pursuing the implications of each a little further.

The question of which argument will be most persuasive might just seem like a pragmatic question, not necessarily a moral one. But it could easily be made to work as a moral argument, framed in terms of the moral imperative to get people to act, and act fast.

For example, Philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith argues that there are reasons to believe that people are more likely to be motivated to act by the justice argument. The humanitarian argument tracks a correlation between the existence of suffering and a moral duty to alleviate it. Everywhere there is suffering, there is also a duty to minimize it. But one might object that this is too morally demanding, and that some may not be willing to accept it. Lawford-Smith suggests this argument relates to people’s intuitions about moral omissions versus moral acts. Research shows that people are inclined to think of omissions as morally less serious than actions in scenarios where an action and an omission have the same outcome. (For example, people tend to think that killing someone through an act is morally worse than letting a person die because of an omission.)

On the other hand, according to the justice argument, the moral duty derives from culpability. The way people act and benefit from unjust institutions makes them culpable for creating the suffering in the first place. Lawford-Smith argues that people are more motivated to act if they feel that some behavior of theirs has caused the suffering. As such, she suggests that it may be more efficacious to argue from justice than from humanity to make a case to the public for why they are duty-bound to act (lobby, agitate, strike, vote, or whatever) on the climate emergency, and for appropriate aid and reparation schemes to achieve global climate justice. If the ultimate moral outcome here is, in fact, urgent action, then the moral and the pragmatic line up, and we must get on with the business of explaining to governments and citizens of rich, industrialized countries why they are, and will be, the cause of massive untold global suffering.

One final observation: at this crucial time, the need to motivate a critical mass of the world’s citizens to rise up and push for change is dire. This is the proverbial eleventh hour. If people cannot be motivated by the moral arguments for humanity or for justice, they may be motivated by arguments from self-interest which are of course not moral arguments at all. In that case, one might point out this is already no longer a crisis affecting just other people in other places. If the climate emergency has not affected you yet, it soon will. If it does not affect you, it will affect your children. Moral arguments should work, because we are a moral, altruistic, and cooperative species, by and large. But if they don’t, let’s hope that existential self-interest ones will. Sadly, though, if only these kinds of reasons will persuade people to act, those people on the planet who are not in a position to cope with the crisis, will find neither humanity nor justice.

Cultural Value, Charitable Giving, and the Fire at Notre Dame

The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris photographed in 2015 from the side

On Monday, April 15, viewers looked on in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral was devastated by fire. Onlookers hoped that the flames would be fought back before too much damage was done, but the cathedral’s spire came crashing down, taking much of the roof with it. The extent of the damage remains to be seen.

Construction on the stunning piece of gothic architecture began in 1163, and the wood out of which it was built was taken from trees that are hundreds of years older.  Among other noteworthy events, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France inside of Notre Dame in 1431, and it was also inside its walls that Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in 1804. Perhaps Notre Dame is most famously known for the attention drawn to it by Victor Hugo in his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The now classic novel raised awareness of the dilapidated condition of the cathedral at that time, and led to restoration and greater appreciation for the historic site.

The landmark is valuable for many reasons. Arguably, it has both instrumental and intrinsic value—that is, it has value both in light of the joy it brings to people, and value in its own right. Some argue that cultural artifacts that have stood the test of time have intrinsic value in light of their continued existence. The more important events take place within a structure, and the more tribulations that structure withstands, the greater its value in this respect. Key historical figures participated in sacred rights in its chapels. This sets the cathedral apart from most other buildings with respect to significance.

The cathedral is also one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed. All things being equal, it is a tragedy when a thing of beauty is destroyed. Art and architecture have the potential to represent the heights of human creativity. The building is not simply beautiful to look at; it expresses something both existential and essential about the human ability to bring monumental, almost inconceivable visions into reality. As a result, when a building like this is destroyed, it hurts us all in a way that is difficult to fully articulate. The building was a testament to our values, our resilience, and the transcendent ability we have to express appreciation of those things we take to be deserving of our best efforts.

Notre Dame speaks to us all in the way that all great works of art do. It is especially significant, however to French citizens. The art and landmarks of a country are a tremendous source of pride for its citizens, and the destruction of Notre Dame no doubt changes how it feels to be French.  

Finally, Notre Dame has substantial religious value for many people. Pilgrimages are made to Notre Dame frequently—an experience at the Cathedral is often a profound one. Notre Dame is home to artifacts that many consider to be relics, including a crown of thorns purportedly placed on the head of Christ, a piece of the “true cross,” and a nail from that cross on which Christ was executed. These relics were salvaged from the flames, but the fact that the Cathedral was the sacred home to such important artifacts in Catholic history highlights the gravity of the loss of the structure.

In light of all of these considerations, our hearts rightly ache at the thought that Notre Dame will never be exactly what it once was. There seems to be no question about whether renovations will occur. In the immediate aftermath of the destruction, Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, vowed to rebuild the beloved landmark, commenting that, “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it. It is up to us to change this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project.” Restoration experts anticipate that the project will take closer to ten to fifteen years. Before construction can even begin, the site must be secured—a substantial task on its own.

To advance the objective of renovating the building, both individuals and private organizations have, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate the cathedral. The combined donations of the L’Oreal cosmetics company, the Bettencourt Meyers family, and the Bettencourt Schueller foundation came to 226 million. On Tuesday, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, pledged a donation of an unspecified amount to restoration efforts. The University of Notre Dame in the United States pledged $100,000 dollars to the cause. Many individuals and institutions understandably don’t want the iconic building to remain in a skeletal form of its former glory.

This event raises interesting philosophical and moral questions about the causes that motivate us to come together to donate resources. The reasons one might want to donate to the renovation are clear. In addition to the recognition of the value of Notre Dame across a variety of domains, people want to continue to have meaningful experiences at the site, and they want future generations of people that they care about to be able to have such experiences as well. It is unsurprising that we should feel motivated to donate money to preserve things that help provide meaning to our lives.

These are moments in which it is appropriate to be reflective about what charitable giving should look like. One important question to ask is, “is charitable giving superogatory?” That is, is it the case that donating money, time, and effort to the world’s problems is something that it is good to do, but not bad not to do? Or is charitable giving, when one has discretionary resources, the kind of thing that we are morally obligated to do, such that we would be remiss, morally speaking, if we failed to do it?

A situation like this might also give us cause to reflect on the motivation and reasoning behind charitable donation. Should we pull out our pocketbooks whenever we feel a tug at our heartstrings? Should we be primarily motivated to donate to those causes that are near and dear to us, such as local causes or causes to which we otherwise feel a close personal connection? It may be the case that feeling satisfaction in response to making a donation of a certain type plays an important role in motivation to donate again in the future. For example, the public’s passion for donating to renovate to Notre Dame has motivated people in Louisiana to rebuild three churches that were seriously damaged by arson that are located in historically black neighborhoods. People recognize the value that churches often have for communities, and this tragedy has put them in the giving spirit.

An alternative theory about how our charitable funds should be directed is that we should give our resources to those causes where our money would do the most good. Imagine that your money could either go to a cause that prevented 1 unit of suffering, or it could go to cause that prevented 5 units of suffering. Intuitively, we should prevent more suffering when we can, so the rational choice is to donate to the second cause. Are we morally obligated to make our decisions in this more calculated way?  

Hundreds of millions of dollars could go a long way to prevent needless suffering in the world. Millions of people die of preventable diseases every year. Countless people don’t have reliable access to food, shelter, clean drinking water, and basic medical care. In a world in which people collectively have hundreds of millions of dollars to spare, is it morally defensible for that money to be spent on the restoration of a building, no matter how beautiful or historically significant that building was?

Some might think that the answer to this question is yes. There are some human cultural achievements that we simply must preserve, if we are able. If we accept this conclusion, however, we must also be willing to admit that the preservation of some art seems to be more important to us, as a human family, than the suffering of our fellow beings.

The Moral Quandary of Testing on Animals

Photo of three rats in a cage with a little red house and food and water available

The topic of testing on animals as a form of scientific research has been contentious for quite some time. In most cases, the discussion tends to focus on whether it is morally permissible to test various products and procedures on animals in order to determine whether they would be safe and beneficial for human use. Animal experimentation is not always conducted simply for the benefit of human beings—sometimes the parties that stand to benefit from the research are other non-human animals, often including other members of the same species as the animals being tested.

Defenders of the practice of testing on animals for the benefit of humans argue that the benefits for humans substantially outweigh the harms incurred by animals. Some argue that our moral obligations extend only to other members of the moral community. Among other things, members of the moral community can recognize the nature of rights and obligations and are capable of being motivated to act on the basis of moral reasons. Non-human animals, because they are not capable of these kinds of reflections, are not members of the moral community. As such, defenders of animals testing argue, they don’t have rights. In response, critics argue that if we only have obligations to beings that can recognize the nature of moral obligations, then we don’t have obligations to very young children or to permanently mentally disabled humans, and this idea is morally indefensible.

Other defenders of animal testing argue that it is both natural and proper for human beings to exercise dominion over animals. These arguments take more than one form. Some people who make this argument are motivated by passages from the Bible. Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Some argue that this passage suggests that humans have divine permission to use animals as they see fit. The use of animals for the benefit of humans seems morally defensible to these people for this reason.

Others argue human dominion over other animals is appropriate because human beings have demonstrated their superiority over non-human animals. We are no different from other animals in the sense that we use our natural skills to climb as high on the food chain as our circumstance permit. As rational creatures, our needs extend farther than the needs of non-human animals. As a result, we can use non-human animals to solve a wider range of problems. We can use them not only for protein, but to make our lives longer, better, more beautiful, and more convenient. Critics of such a view argue that might doesn’t make right. What’s more, our enhanced rational capacities also give us the ability to make moral judgments, and these moral judgments should extend to compassion for the suffering of all living creatures.

Arguments against research on animals also come in a variety of forms. One approach focuses on suffering. Famously, Peter Singer argued that what makes a being deserving of moral consideration is their capacity to suffer. If we treat equal amounts of suffering unequally simply because of the species to which the animal happens to belong, our behavior is speciesist—we are taking seriously considerations that are morally irrelevant. Rights based approaches, like the one argued by Tom Regan point out that non-human animals are subjects of lives. There is something it is like for them to experience the world in the unique way that they do. In light of this, we should recognize that non-human animals have intrinsic value and they should not be used as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of human beings.

How should we assess the situation when the research done on non-human animals is done, not for the benefit of human beings, but for the benefit of other non-human animals? In these cases, one major criticism of testing disappears—researchers can’t be accused of failing to take the interests of non-human animals seriously. After all, concern for the interests of non-human animals is what motivates this research to begin with. Vaccines for rabies, canine parvovirus, distemper, and feline leukemia virus have been developed through the use of animal research. These critical procedures improve and even save the lives of non-human animals. When we engage in a consequentialist assessment of the practice, testing on non-human animals for the benefit of other non-human animals seems justified.

On the other hand, it may be that speciesism is rearing its ugly head again in this case. Consider a parallel case in which research was being conducted for the good of human beings. Imagine that a tremendous amount of good could be done for human beings at large if we tested a particular product on a human being. The testing of this product would cause tremendous physical pain to the human being, and may even cause their death. Presumably, we would not think that it is justified to experiment on the human. The ends do not justify the means.  

One might think that one major difference between the case of testing on humans and the case of testing on animals is that humans are capable of giving consent and animals are not. So, on this view, if we kidnap a human for the purposes of experimenting on her to achieve some greater good, what we have done wrong, is, in part, violating the autonomy of the individual. Animals aren’t capable of giving consent, so it is not possible to violate their autonomy in this way.  

Under the microscope, this way of carving up the situation doesn’t track our ordinary discourse about consent. It is, of course, true, that humans are free to use freely (within limits) certain things that are incapable of giving consent. For example, humans can use grain and stone and so on without fear of violating any important moral principle. In other cases in which consent is not possible, we tend to have very different intuitions. Very young children, for example, aren’t capable of consent, and for that very reason we tend to think it is not morally permissible for us to use them as mere means to our own ends. Beings that are conscious but are incapable of giving consent seem worthy of special protection. So it seems wrong to test on them even if it is for the good of their own species. Is it speciesist to think that the ends can’t justify the means in the case of the unwilling human subject but not in the case of the unwilling non-human animal?

Testing on non-human animals for the sake of other non-human animals also raises other sets of unique moral concerns and questions. What is the proper rank ordering of moral obligations when the stakeholders are abstractions? Imagine that we are considering doing an experiment on Coco the chimpanzee. The experiment that we do on Coco might have implications for future chimpanzees with Coco’s condition. The research might, then, have a beneficial impact for Coco’s species—the species “chimpanzee.” Can the moral obligations that we have to concrete, suffering beings ever be outweighed by obligations that we have to abstractions like “future generations” or “survival of the species”?

The Puppy and the Snapping Turtle

An image of a snapping turtle's mouth

On March 8, 2018, an abandoned, terminally ill puppy was brought into the classroom of Idaho high school science teacher Robert Crosland.  Crosland, known for taking in sick animals, could tell that the puppy was beyond saving.  After school, in front of a handful of his students, Crosland placed the sick puppy inside the tank of his snapping turtle.  It drowned and was then eaten by the turtle. Crosland was reported for animal cruelty. The snapping turtle, a member of an invasive species, was confiscated and euthanized by the Department of Agriculture.

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Bullfighting: Moral Good or Unnecessary Cruelty?

An image of a bull dying in a bullfight.

Bullfighting has always been controversial in the Spanish-speaking world. Strangely, most of the intellectual defenders of this ancient tradition have not been Hispanic themselves. In the twentieth century, the staunchest defender of bullfighting was Ernest Hemingway, an American. Yet, Hemingway was not a philosopher, and his defense of bullfighting relied more on emotion than on reason. The staunchest intellectual defender of bullfighting in the 21st century is a Frenchman, Francis Wolff. Unlike Hemingway, Wolff is a philosopher, and in a series of books and articles, he has attempted to make a philosophical defense of bullfighting, based on reasoned ethical arguments. Although these arguments are sometimes ingenious, they are for the most part flawed.

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