Chimpanzees and Personhood

There has been a lot of talk of late about whether or not chimpanzees are, or should be counted as, persons. The most immediate occasion concerns a legal maneuver on the part of the Nonhuman Rights Project to get two chimpanzees to be recognized in law as persons. A group of philosophers and others have submitted an amicus brief in support of this motion, and a fortiori in support of the contention that no legally plausible understanding of “personhood” excludes chimpanzees.

I have a lot of sympathy for the practical aims of the HNRP in this case. Given what we know about chimpanzees and the facts of the case at hand it seems likely that the two chimpanzees are being harmed and this should be rectified. However, I find the arguments of the amicus brief unpersuasive and a largely beside the point. Overall they display the penchant of philosophers to confuse the kinds of questions that interest philosophers with questions that are relevant to legal proceedings. I’ll say a few things here about a couple of examples. (Read more)

Why Mencius was a Philosopher

There’s a debate, of sorts, raging about whether the likes of Confucius should be considered ‘philosophy’. The debate was occasioned by a piece in Aeon, which was itself a response to a widely discussed NYT op ed by Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield. To be blunt, I think the Aeon article is pretty bad, and the idea that nothing worth calling philosophy exists outside the tradition begun by Plato (who inherited a tradition, actually) rather obviously silly. The piece’s flaws have been amply demonstrated by others, so I won’t belabor that particular point. The debate has raised some interesting questions though.

Is it worth asking what makes something ‘philosophy’ and trying to answer in such a way that we have clear identity conditions? I doubt it, and I doubt it can be done in any interesting and non-question begging way. Still, the Aeon article is right about one thing: not everything wise and good is philosophy. I think there’s a lot of wisdom—and philosophical insight—to be found in The Godfather films. So why would I not count those as philosophy while I will count Mencius, for example?

The answers has to do with the immediacy and explicitness with which Mencius—and the long tradition of interpreting, criticizing, expanding, and applying his thought that has carried on for 2000 plus years—addresses recognizably philosophical issues. I published a paper in the, ahem, Journal of Chinese Philosophy where I draw on Mencius and Martha Nussbaum to consider some questions regarding human nature and morality. That Mencius is Chinese and Nussbaum American is not unimportant, but it is largely incidental to the philosophical argument I’m trying to make—I draw on two thinkers with a lot to say on the matter, and that’s about it. If Nussbaum is a philosopher in talking about these things how can we not count Mencius as a philosopher as well?

One more point: what makes drawing on Mencius worth while is not diversity for its own sake, but the very interesting fact that Mencius and Nussbaum draw on sets of conceptual resources that only partly overlap—the space of possible philosophical moves is expanded when we look beyond Plato’s heirs. Hence the value of comparative philosophy.

On Poverty and Fancy Cars

So here’s an argument we’ve all heard:

It would be wrong of me to choose not to help a child in peril in order protect some kind of material good—a fancy car, expensive clothes, etc. Each of us, however, is in a morally comparable position every day, able to help a needy child at the cost of relatively modest amount of money. Specifically, modulo some plausible calculations, by donating $200 or so to an effective charity we can extend the life of a child living in extreme poverty. So, by choosing not to donate the $200, each of us who are in a position to do so are as morally culpable as the person who allows a child to perish for the sake of a car.

Now, versions of this argument—offered most famously by Peter Unger and Peter Singer in various places over the years—have probably done a whole lot of good, certainly more than most philosophical arguments. And I would hardly want to discourage people from donating to the likes of Oxfam. Still, it is a transparently bad argument, or so it seems to me. Keep Reading…

Metaethical Musings II

It seems “a bit” by my blog’s standards isn’t a particularly brief amount of time. Apologies if anyone was waiting on pins and needles for this follow up.

What I am playing around with is something like this. We’re supposing that in the first instance a moral judgment to the effect ‘x is wrong’ is a statement of a social fact. Specifically it points to the fact that x violates a norm recognized by the relevant community and incorporated into its practices. As noted in the previous post, one way to avoid the worry of ethical relativism is to appeal to a trans-cultural good which can be used to adjudicate competing such norms accepted by different communities. If we define what counts as human flourishing in a way that doesn’t depend on the particular values of any one community, or which can be recognized and accepted across diverse communities, we can use that to judge how conducive a given community’s norms are of human flourishing. In a rough way this would capture the strategies of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Natural Law Theory as understood by Aquinas, but in a way that acknowledges and accommodates the fundamentally social nature of morality as well as the fact of moral diversity. Together these point in the direction of the less metaphysically loaded but still Aristotelianish Capabilities Approach of Martha Nussbaum….Continue

Metaethical Musings

I’ve been reading a book of essays by a legal theorist who draws a lot from philosophy. He supports legal positivism position by appeal to a generic kind of non-cognitivist metaethical position, which he contrasts with moral realism. What interests me is that he defines the latter as holding to some versions of the claim that moral judgments are true or false and this in a way that is “mind independent.”  This is to say he conflates “objective” and “mind independent.” As typical as this is, it strikes me, and has for a long time, as odd. Keep reading…