To Fish or not to Fish?

One of the happiest discoveries that I ever made in my youth was fishing. I discovered it one summer in the lakes region of central New Hampshire, when I was 12 years old. My grandfather sent me to a little brook to fish for brook trout. The brook was tiny, and when I first saw it I thought “There aren’t any fish in here.” Then I took a step toward the brook, and it happened. Like little streaks of blurred lightning under the rippling, bubbling water, they flashed out in every direction. I was stupefied. I was amazed. I was in awe. And I was hooked. From then on, I was an avid angler.

But now I am having doubts. Over the years I have often thought to myself that if I had to defend our treatment of animals in a debate with a smart critic, I would lose that debate. But until now I have managed to put the issue out of my mind. Then, last week, two things happened. First, Andrew Chignell came to the Center for Philosophic Exchange and gave a talk about the ethics of eating meat. That got me thinking again, and doing some more reading. Second, I discovered a recent book by a biologist named Victoria Braithwaite, entitled Do Fish Feel Pain? I have not read the book yet, but from the reviews that I have read, it sounds like she makes a pretty good case that the answer is “yes.” I plan to read the book soon, and I will tell you if that turns out to be false. In the meantime, I am struggling with this question. If fish do feel pain – if they suffer when I hook them and pull them out of the water, then should I stop fishing? I’m going to share a few open-ended thoughts about it here, and then listen with interest to what the rest of you think.

There is one thing that I feel fairly certain about. Pain is morally significant. If an action causes pain, then that is at least a pro tanto moral reason not to perform that action. So if fish feel pain when I hook them and pull them out of the water, then that is at least a pro tanto moral reason not to fish. I think that I am familiar with most of the standard reasons to discount animal pain, and I find them all unconvincing. They all seem to amount to saying, in one way or another, that “We’re smarter than they are, so their pain doesn’t matter.” My response is that pain hurts just the same, regardless of how smart you are. Of course, I agree that the lack of certain kinds of intelligence precludes the possibility of certain kinds of pain. For instance, if fish do not project very far into their futures, then they probably do not fear death in exactly the same way in which a human being would. But that does not change the fact (if it is a fact) that they feel pain, and that their pain hurts, and that hurting is a bad thing. So I don’t find this whole “we’re smarter” line of argument very helpful in this context. That is not to say that there are no morally relevant differences between human and nonhuman animals. I’m not arguing for that here. My present position is just this: fish pain is a pro tanto reason not to fish, and therefore if fishing is to be justified, then there must be a morally relevant reason for doing it that outweighs this reason not to do it. What could that be?

Robert Nozick once said that his view about animals was “Kantianism for human beings, and utilitarianism for everything else.” Let’s try that out, and see where it goes. I do enjoy fishing. I enjoy it immensely. Is it possible that my enjoyment of fishing is sufficient to outweigh the negative value of fish pain? At this point the problem of interpersonal utility comparisons leaps clearly into view. How could I possibly make a reasonable comparison between the fish’s pain and my enjoyment? Even if I can discern that fish feel pain, how could I measure or quantify it in such a way as to make a comparison with my enjoyment of fishing? I find that extremely difficult to do. Maybe the empirical evidence will help me here. I will find out. But if I cannot make the comparison, then it seems to me that I should err on the side of not causing harm. In that case, it seems that I should forgo fishing. On the other side, however, there is my love of the activity, and the long, personal history that I have with it. That seems to count for something too. But here again, I really don’t know how to weigh it.

Well, as you can see, I am in the throes of this question, with no clear answer. Here is one possibility, which intrigues me. When I think about fishing now, and I imagine catching a fish, the fact that the fish might be feeling pain comes to forefront of my mind. Maybe what I should do is to read the book on fish pain, and then go fishing. If I hook a fish, and I am fully aware of the pain that I am causing, maybe my conscience will tell me what I ought to do. Maybe I should trust my own reaction at that moment. Or should I? I really don’t know.

Marx’s Theory of the State

In recent years, I have oscillated between a garden-variety liberal egalitarianism and a more radical form of Marxism.Lately, I am leaning more towards the latter.  One of the reasons is that I find Marx’s theory of the state much closer to the truth than any liberal view of the state.  In what follows, I will summarize Marx’s theory of the state, as I understand it.  Much of this is indebted to the work of one of my former teachers at Wisconsin, Andrew Levine, who has written on this topic many times over the years.  My hope is that some people who generally disagree with Marx might find his theory of the state more congenial to their views than they would have expected.

According to Marx, every state is a dictatorship.  That is to say, every state is imposed by extra-moral, extra-legal force.  As I understand it, this is an explanatory claim.  Even if there is some kind of moral justification for the state, that plays no role in the correct explanation of the existence or nature of the state.  Rather, the correct explanation of the existence and nature of the state is that it is brought about by force, and maintained in the same way.  That is what Marx means when he says that every state is a “dictatorship.”  Now here is the element of the theory that is distinctively Marxian.  According to Marx, every state is a class dictatorship.  For Marx, the basic units of society, and the principal agents of change in human history are social classes, which are defined by their role in human production.  Moreover, in every class-divided society, one or more of these classes rules the other classes.  There is always a ruling class, and one or more subordinate classes.  Now, here is Marx’s theory of the state.  According to Marx, the state is the organizing committee of the ruling class.  It is the instrument through which the ruling class coordinates and exercises its rule of the other classes, and thereby maintains its status as the ruling class.  Through the state, the ruling class resolves intra-class conflicts, and creates and enforces the rules and policies that ensure their status as the ruling class.  That’s what the state does, and that’s what the state IS.  In a capitalist society, the ruling class is the capitalist class, who own the means of production, and they dominate the proletariat, who own no means of production.  So in a capitalist society, the state is the organizing committee of the capitalist class, through which they coordinate their rule.

At this point, notice the sharp contrast between Marxism and standard varieties of liberalism.  Liberalism has always been a philosophy of reform.  Liberals want to reform the state, and thereby reform society.  They want to use the state to socially engineer a better society.  Marx would say that in any class-divided society, that is impossible.  The reason is that in any class-divided society, the state is, and always will be the instrument of the ruling class.  Even when such a state makes concessions to a subordinate class, it is only because the ruling class deems this necessary to preserve its status.  So the difference between liberals and Marxists is really quite severe.  Where liberals are relatively optimistic about the prospects for reforming the state, Marxists are deeply skeptical.  For a Marxist, the only way to cure what ails us is to revolutionize our society, and the only way to do that is for the subordinate classes to take over the state, exercise their own class dictatorship, and ultimately eliminate class divisions in society.  Once classes are eliminated, there will be no more role for a state (since states are class dictatorships), and the state will “wither away.”  People sometimes forget that Marx’s final vision is actually anarchist — there will be no state.

Is there compelling empirical evidence for Marx’s theory of the state?  That’s a large question, and I can’t hope to answer it here.  But here are two pieces of evidence to add to the mix.

1. In his recent book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012), the political scientist Martin Gilens adduces convincing evidence that the United States government is disproportionately responsive to the preferences of the most affluent members of American society, at the expense of both the poor and the middle-class.  This is based on a rigorous examination of the facts.  More precisely, Gilens’ research shows that “When less-well-off Americans hold preferences that diverge from those of the affluent, policy responsiveness to the well-off remains strong, but responsiveness to lower-income groups all but disappears.” (Gilens, 2012: 5)

2. The bailout that was initiated by the Bush administration, and then completed by the Obama administration.  Enough said.

The Freedom Fetish

As I will define it, freedom is the absence of interference by other people.  Interference can be understood either broadly or narrowly.  Understood broadly, to interfere with someone is to bring it about that she has no reasonable alternative to performing a particular action.  If I hold a gun to your head and demand your wallet, then I bring it about that you have no reasonable alternative to giving me your wallet. So I have interfered with you in this broad sense.  But similarly, if you are starving, and I offer you a hazardous job on exploitative terms, then in the broad sense, I have again interfered with you, since I have brought it about that you have no reasonable alternative to accepting a hazardous job on exploitative terms.  For that reason, some people might reject the broad understanding of interference, and opt for a very narrow understanding.  On the narrowest understanding, to interfere with a person is to make it physically impossible for her to act in any other way that to perform a specific action (or omission).  Thus, if I tie you down, then I interfere with you in this narrow sense.  As far as I can tell, there is a spectrum of ways of defining interference, with the broadest definitions on one end of the spectrum, and the narrowest definitions on the other end.  I suspect that there are many possible definitions along the spectrum.  For my purposes here, I believe that any one of these definitions will suffice.  That is to say, I think that what I have to say will apply to freedom on any of these definitions.  Freedom is the absence of interference, on any of these various ways of specifying the concept of interference.

Now here is my question.  Why should we value freedom?  More precisely, why should we think that there is a right to freedom in a wide range of cases?  This question goes right to the heart of liberalism.  What I will do here is to survey some traditional answers.  I think that there are serious problems with every one of them.  I will suggest that one answer has the best prospects, but I’m still not sure whether those prospects are very good.

The first answer is that freedom is instrumentally valuable as a means to the end of human well-being.  To say that freedom is valuable as a means to the end of human well-being is to say that, all things being equal, freedom increases the probability of a higher level of well-being.  More precisely, for any given person, if that person is free, then all things being equal, it is more probable that she will achieve a relatively high level of well-being than if she is not free.  If freedom is instrumentally valuable in this sense, then that might ground a right to freedom.  The basic problem with this answer to the question was recently brought to my attention by Daniel Haybron, in the last two chapters of his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness (2008), and Sarah Conly, in the first two chapters of her book Against Autonomy (2013).  Haybron and Conly both summarize the extensive evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that human beings are systematically prone to a wide range of biases and errors in both thought and action, and that these biases and errors render us poorly equipped to pursue our own well-being.  I will not try to summarize those findings here.  To my mind, the evidence is strong enough to cast significant doubt on the idea that freedom is instrumentally valuable to us.  It casts at least enough doubt to make the instrumental value of freedom too weak and unstable a basis for anything like a right to freedom.

The second answer is that freedom is intrinsically valuable – valuable in itself, and for its own sake.  Remember that the kind of freedom that we are considering here is the absence of interference.  Is the absence of interference intrinsically valuable?  This is a difficult question, but I think that the answer is either “no,” or “not very much.”  Here I will just argue for the weaker conclusion – “not very much”.  Suppose that I know, somehow, that if I were not interfered with in the near future, then I would act in ways that would bring about slightly more harm than good for me.  Moreover, I also know that if someone interferes with me, then that will bring about slightly more good than harm for me.  By hypothesis, there are no effects in either of these two cases that are not included in the final assessment that is built into the descriptions of the cases.  Then what should I prefer – to be interfered with, or not to be interfered with?  My own intuition is that I should prefer being interfered with, for the simple reason that I will be better off if I am interfered with.  Now here is the thing to notice: this argument involves only the slightest amount of difference in well-being.  So the upshot, as I see it, is that if freedom is intrinsically valuable, then its value is so small that it can be outweighed even by the slightest amount of well-being in any other respect.  That seems to me too little value to constitute the basis for a right to freedom.

At this point, many people will say that my search has mistakenly prioritized the good over the right.  I have assumed some kind of consequentialist basis for the right to freedom.  However, the basis of the right to freedom is a duty that we owe to people to respect their freedom, regardless of the value that freedom has for them.  On the face of it, I find this view strange.  Just consider this statement: “I owe it to you to give you freedom, which is completely worthless to you.”  That sounds odd to my ear.  But I know that it doesn’t sound odd to everyone – not at all.  So let’s dig in deeper.  The usual basis for this view is the broadly Kantian idea that people deserve respect, and since people are naturally free creatures, that requires respecting their freedom. In order for this foundation to do the work that it’s supposed to do, we need a single sense of “freedom” in which it is true both that people have it, and that it deserves respect.  I think that the recent empirical research, cited above, together with some thought experiments, casts doubt on that assumption.  If freedom just means “capable of acting,” then people are free in this very minimal sense.  People can perform actions.  But does the ability to act, regardless of the degree of irrationality involved, deserve respect?  I think not.  Suppose that my father is told that he could have a surgery that has a 10% chance of success, and he wants to have it because it was described to him in that way.  If he were told that it has a 90% chance of failure, which is also true, then he would decline the surgery.  (This is a common cognitive error.)  Does his ability to act on this well-known error deserve respect?  It seems to me that it doesn’t.  Given the research cited above, this problem generalizes.  Human beings are deeply, systematically irrational.  The mere ability to act, when it is driven by such irrationality, does not deserve respect.  That’s my intuition.  So, given the way people are, psychologically speaking, I don’t think that their actions deserve respect just because they are actions.  I’m sure that some people will disagree with me at this point, but that’s my intuition.

This brings me to what I think is the final, and most plausible view.  Freedom has what Ian Carter and others call constitutive value.  Freedom is a necessary constituent of a larger state of affairs that is, itself, intrinsically valuable.  That state of affairs is acting autonomously.  Autonomous action is intrinsically valuable, and it deserves respect.  To act autonomously is to act competently from motives that are, in an important sense, “one’s own.”  I won’t even begin to try to give an account of autonomy or autonomous action here.  That’s a very large question.  I think that, of all the views canvassed so far, this one has the best prospects.  But it also has some interesting implications.  First of all, if this view is correct, then there is no right to freedom of non-autonomous action.  Second of all, if this view is correct, then if we have a right to any sort of freedom, it is actually autonomy that we have a right to. That, in turn, would mean that we owe people the tools that they need to become autonomous.  That might, in turn, require interfering with people’s negative freedom sometimes, in order to provide other people with the tools that they need to become autonomous.  For example, if some parents want to indoctrinate their children to such a degree that their children are incapable of becoming autonomous adults, then we will have to prevent that, since those children have a right to become autonomous adults.  So this view will have some significant implications.

But I’m not really sure about this view either. For one thing, I’m not really sure of the extent to which human beings are capable of becoming autonomous, at least to a degree that is significant enough to do the work that is needed here.  Second, I’m not sure that autonomy has the degree of value that is needed to do the work here.  In the end, I’m tempted to say that our love of freedom, in every sense of the word, might be something of a fetish. Call it the freedom fetish.

Running the Gauntlet of Reason

I am incredibly impressed, and even a bit dumbfounded, that Irfan would invite me to blog with him.  From what I know of Irfan, he is a libertarian who has been influenced by Ayn Rand.  (That might be an understatement.)  By contrast, I am a radical egalitarian, a quasi-Marxist, and a critic of all things libertarian.  So you can understand my amazement when Irfan invited me to blog with him.  Then I read what some other people have said about Irfan, and I read some of his own work, and then I started to get it.  I suspect that Irfan and I have something in common.  It is the project of the Enlightenment, applied at a personal level.  I am using the word “enlightenment” in the way that Kant used it in his famous essay on that subject.  Enlightenment is using reason, in the broad sense of the word, to determine what you will believe and how you will act, and that requires subjecting your opinions and your actions to rational scrutiny, even when that is uncomfortable.  Let’s call it running the gauntlet of reason.  It’s a bit masochistic, in a way.  Subjecting yourself to rational scrutiny opens you up to the possibility of having to change your mind, and that can be painful.  But some of us are masochistic in that way, because we value truth that much.  When I was in my early 20’s, I was an evangelical Christian theist, and a conservative Republican who campaigned for Jack Kemp in the Republican primaries.  Now I am an agnostic who leans toward atheism, and a confirmed socialist.  And I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve changed my mind so much.  But I don’t want to shut my mind off just yet, and I can tell that Irfan doesn’t want to either.  So let’s do this.  Let’s run the gauntlet of reason.  I have worked on issues in a broad range of areas, from epistemology and metaphysics to philosophy of religion and political philosophy.  These days my attention is focused on the latter two areas, so I will probably blog about them the most.  But I have lots of other interests as well.  Hopefully some of them will interest you too.