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The Walter E. Edge lecture presented at Princeton University on 15 October 2002.
It was only after I had already transcribed about two-thirds that I found out this lecture has already been published. The published version has subtle but important changes that clarify, qualify, or otherwise “correct” vague portions. I have not done so with my transcript. The changes I have made are very minor. Williams seems to love using the word “now” to begin with most of his sentences. I have deleted almost all of them. I have also removed almost all the contractions. I have, I must add, added two paragraphs at the very beginning from the published version of the essay (see below) which he omits saying in the lecture.
Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice,” in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 135–152.
Once upon a time, there was an outlook called “humanism”. In one sense there still is: it is a name given these days to a movement of organized, sometimes militant, opposition to religious belief, in particular to Christianity. What was more or less the same movement used to go under a name equally inherited from the past of philosophy, which was “Rationalism.” In Britain atheist organizations under these different names have existed at the same time, and I believe that one man, who wrote indefatigably to the newspapers, may once have been secretary of them both.
It is not “humanism” in any such sense that I shall be concerned with, but I will make one point about it, because it is relevant to questions about our ethical outlook and the role played in it by the idea of humanity, which are the questions that I do want to discuss. Humanism in the sense of militant atheism encounters an immediate and very obvious paradox. Its speciality lies not just in being atheist—there are all sorts of ways of being that—but in its faith in humanity to flourish without religion; moreover, in the idea that religion itself is peculiarly the enemy of human flourishing. The general idea is that if the last remnants of religion could be abolished, humankind would be set free and would do a great deal better. But the outlook is stuck with the fact that on its own submission this evil, corrupting, and pervasive thing, religion, is itself a human invention: it certainly did not come from anywhere else. So humanists in this atheist sense should ask themselves: if humanity has invented something as awful as they take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?
However, that is not the subject. The time I have got in mind is that of the Renaissance. The term, at that time, applied in the first place to new schemes of education emphasising the Latin classics and the tradition of rhetoric, but it came to apply more broadly to a variety of philosophical movements. There was an increase in intensified interest in human nature. One form of this was a new tradition inaugurated perhaps by Petrarch; of writings about the dignity and excellence of human beings, or, as the tradition inevitably put it, of man. These ideas were certainly not original with the Renaissance. Many of the arguments were already familiar: for instance, the Christian argument that the superiority of man or human beings was shown by the choice of a human being to be the vehicle of the incarnation; or the older idea which goes back at least to Protagoras as he is presented by Plato that humans have fewer natural advantages, fewer defences, for instance, than other animals, but that they or more than compensated for this by the gift of reason and cognition.
Others, of course, took a gloomier view of human powers and potentialities. Montaigne wondered how peculiar human beings were and he was a lot less enthusiastic about the peculiarities they had. But whether the views were positive and celebratory, or more sceptical and pessimistic, there was one characteristic of almost all those views shared with each other, and they shared it too with traditional Christianity and this was hardly surprising, since virtually everyone in the Renaissance influenced by humanism was some sort of Christian”.
For a start, almost everyone believed that human beings were literally at the centre of the universe, with the exceptions perhaps of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno who thought there was no centre to the universe. Besides that purely topographical belief, however, there was a more basic assumption that in cosmic terms, human beings had a definite measure of importance. In most of these outlooks, the assumption was that that measure of human being’s importance was high, that humans were particularly important in relation to the scheme of things. Well, that is most obviously true of the more celebratory version of humanism according to which human beings are the most perfect beings in creation.
But it is also present in fact in outlooks that assign human beings a wretched and imperfect condition: Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts. The assumption is still there. Indeed, it is hardly an assumption; it is a central belief in the structure that that fact itself is of absolute importance. The cosmos may not be looking at human beings with much admiration but it is certainly looking at them. The human condition is a central concern to God. So central in fact that it led to the incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signalling man’s special role in the scheme of things. If man’s fate is a special concern to God, there’s nothing more absolute than that. It is a central concern. Period.
Overtly anthropocentric views of the cosmos are certainly less common today than they were then. Leaving aside the distribution of concerns on earth itself, which I am going to come back to, people for a long time now have been impressed by the mere topographical rearrangement of the universe by which we are not in the centre of anything interesting. Our location in the galaxy, just for starters, seems almost extravagantly non-committal. Moreover, many people suppose that there are other living creatures on planets in this galaxy, in other galaxies, perhaps in other universes. It seems hubristic or merely silly to suppose that this enterprise has any special interest in us. Even Christians, or many of them, are less impressed by the idea that God must be more concerned with human beings than he is with any other creature, though I am afraid I don’t know what the current state of thought is about the incarnation. The idea of the absolute importance of human beings seems firmly dead or at least well on the way out.
However, we need to go a little carefully here. The assumption I am considering, as I put it, is that in cosmic terms, human beings have a definite measure of importance. The most common application of that idea naturally enough has been that they have a high degree of importance. And I suggested that that itself can take two different forms: the Petrarchan or celebratory form in which man is splendidly important, and what we may call the Lutheran form where what is of ultimate significance is the fact that man is wretchedly fallen. But there is another less obvious application of the same assumption: that human beings have a definite measure of importance in the scheme of things but that it is very low. On this view, the significance of human beings to the cosmos is vanishingly small. This may not be a very exciting truth about the cosmos as contrasted with those other outlooks I mentioned. But it is still meant to be a truth about the cosmos. Moreover, it is meant to be an exciting or at least a significant truth about human beings. I think this may have been what Bertrand Russell was thinking when for instance in an essay significantly called “A Free Man’s Worship”, he went on about the transitoriness of human beings, the tininess of the earth, the vast and pitiless expanses of the universe, and so on in the style of self-pitying and at the same time self-glorifying rhetoric that made Frank Ramsey remark that he himself was much less impressed than some of his friends were by the size of the universe, perhaps because he weighed 240 pounds!
Now this outlook can make people feel that human activities are absurd because we invest them with an importance which they don’t really possess. Now if someone who feels about human activities in this way, there is never much point, it must be said, in telling him that his feelings involve a muddle. Those feelings probably come from some place which that comment won’t reach. At the same time, they do involve a muddle. It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some test of cosmic significance and as contrasted with that, recognising that there is no test of cosmic significance. If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance. And perhaps in a way, that is what Russell wanted to say. But his journey through the pathos of loneliness and insignificance as experienced from a non-existent point of view could only generate the kind of muddle that is called sentimentality. Nietzsche, by contrast, got it right when he said something to the effect that once upon a time, there was a star in a certain corner of the universe and a planet circling that star and in it some clever animals who invented knowledge and then they died and then the star went out and it was as though nothing had happened.
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ”world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly-as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense”.
There is, in principle, a third possibility between a cosmic point of view on the one hand and our point of view on the other and that is a possibility familiar from science fiction: that one day we encounter other creatures who would have a point of view on our activities. A point of view which, it is quite vital to add, we could respect. But perhaps science fiction hasn’t made any interesting use of this fantasy but there is something to learn from it and I am going to come back at the end of these remarks.
Suppose we accept that there is no question of human beings and their activities being important or failing to be important from a cosmic point of view. That doesn’t mean that there is no point of view from which they are important. There is certainly one point of view from which they are important, namely ours. Unsurprisingly so, since the we in question, the we who raise this question and discuss it with others who we hope will listen and reply, are indeed human beings. It is just as unsurprising that this we often shows up within the content of our values. Whether a creature is a human being or not makes a large difference a lot of time to the ways in which we treat that creature or at least think that we should treat that creature.
Let us leave aside for the moment distinctions of this kind that are strongly contested by some people such as the matter of what we are prepared to eat. Less contentiously, we speak for instance of human rights. And that means rights that are possessed by certain creatures because they are human beings, in virtue of their being human. We speak of human values. Indeed you have here a distinguished university centre for human values. Of course, that phrase could mean no more than the fact that the values in question are possessed by human beings. But in that merely possessive sense, that term would hardly be adding much since on this planet at least, there isn’t any other creature that has values or certainly a centre to study and promote them! Human values aren’t just values that we have, but values that express our humanity and to study them as the centre does, is to study what we values in as much as we are what we are, that is to say, human beings.
There are some people who suppose that if in any way we privilege human beings in our ethical thought, if we think that what happens to human beings is more important that what happens to other creatures, if we think that human beings as such have a claim on our attention and care in all sorts of situations in which other animals have less or no claim on us, they think that we are implicitly reverting to a belief in the absolute importance of human beings. They suppose that we are in fact saying, when we exercise these distinctions between human beings and other creatures, that human beings are more important, period, than those other creatures. That objection is simply a mistake. We don’t have to saying anything of that sort at all. We don’t have to be referring to cosmic importance. These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us. And that fact is hardly surprising. That mistaken objection takes the form of claiming that in privileging human beings in our ethical thought, we are saying more than we should. We are claiming their absolute importance. That is the mistaken objection.
There is a different objection which might be put by claiming that we are saying less than we need to say. That is to say we need a reason for these preferences in favour of human beings. Without a reason, this objection goes, that preference for human beings would just be a prejudice. If we have given any reason at all so far for these preferences, it is simply the one we express by saying, “it’s a human being,” or “they’re human,” or “she is one of us”. And that, the objectors say, isn’t a reason. They will remind us of the paradigm prejudices: racism and sexism. “Because he is white” and “because he is male” are no good in themselves as reasons though they can be relevant in very special circumstances, for instance, gender in the case of employing a bathroom attendant. Though even that might be thought in some circles to involve a further prejudice. If the supposed reasons of race and gender are offered without support — “he is a man”, “he is white” — the answer they elicit is quite rightly, “what has that got to do with it?” Those supposed reasons are equally of the form, “he is one of us” for a narrower us. The objectors say the human privilege is itself just another prejudice like racism or sexism and they have a suitably unlovely name for it, speciesism.
How good is this objection? And how exactly does it work? I am afraid it will take a little while to answer those questions because they require us to try to get a bit clearer about the relations between our humanity on the one hand and our giving and understanding reasons on the other. And the route to that involves several stops. A good place to start I think is this: not many racist or sexists have actually supposed that a bare appeal to race or gender — merely saying “he’s black” or “she’s a woman” — did constitute a reason. They were, so to speak, at a stage either earlier or later than that. It was earlier if they simply had a barely articulated practice of discrimination. They just went on like that and they did not need to say anything to their like-minded companions in the way of justification of their practices.
Well, the day came when they did have to say something in justification. To those discriminated against if they couldn’t simply go on telling them to shut up, to outsiders or radicals, or to themselves in those moments when they started to wonder how defensible it might be. And then they had to say something more. Mere references to race or gender wouldn’t meet what was by then the need. Equally, references to supernatural sources which said the same thing wouldn’t hold up for long. Something which at least seemed relevant to the matter at hand — a job opportunity, the franchise, or whatever it might be — would have to be brought up about the supposed intellectual and moral weakness, say, of blacks or women. These were reasons in the sense that they are at least to some degree of the right shape to be reasons. But they were very bad reasons both because they were untrue and because they were the products of false consciousness working to hold up the system. And they didn’t need any very elaborate social or psychological theory to show that they were.
With the case of the supposed human prejudice, it doesn’t seem to be quite like this. On the one hand, it isn’t simply a matter of inarticulate or unexpressed discrimination. There is no secret that we are in favour of human rights, for instance. On the other hand, “it’s a human being” does seem to operate as a reason but it doesn’t seem to be helped out by some further reach of supposedly more relevant reasons of the kind which in the other cases of prejudices turned out to be rationalisations or false consciousness. We are all aware of some notable differences between human beings and other creatures on earth. There’s a whole range of cases in which we cite or rely on the fact that a certain creature is a human being but where those differences between us and other animals don’t seem to figure in our thought as justifications for going on as we do. In fact, in many cases, it is hard to see how they could. Uniquely on earth, human beings use highly articulated languages; they develop to an unparalleled extent non-genetic learning through culture; they possess literatures and historically cumulative technologies, and so on. Of course, there’s quite a lot of dispute about the exact nature and extent of these differences between our own and other species. There are discussions, for instance, of how far some other primates transmit learned skills and whether they have local traditions in this. But this isn’t the point. There is on any showing a sharp and spectacular behavioural gap between ourselves and our nearest primate relatives. And that is no doubt because other hominid species have disappeared, doubtless with our assistance.
But why should considerations about those differences — about culture and technology and language and all that — true as they are play any role at all in an argument about vegetarianism for instance? What’s all that stuff about language and culture and so on got to do with human beings eating some other animals but not human beings? It is hard to see any argument in that direction which won’t turn out to say something like this: it is simply better that culture, intelligence, and technology should flourish as opposed presumably to those other amazing things that are done by other species which are on the menu. Or consider, if you like, not the case of meat eating but of insecticides. If we have reason to use insecticide, must we claim that it is simply better that we should flourish at the expense of the insects. If any evolutionary development is spectacular and amazing, it is the proliferation and diversification of insects. Some of them are harmful to human beings, they are food, or they are artefacts, but they are truly wonderful.
What this last point shows is that even if we could get hold of the idea that it was just better that one sort of animal should flourish rather than another, it is not in the least clear why it should be us. But the basic point is that we can’t get hold of that idea at all. That is simply another recurrence of the notion we saw a little while ago: absolute importance, that last relic of the still enchanted world. We can say rightly that we are in favour of cultural development and so on and think it very important, but that itself is just another expression of the human prejudice we are supposed to be wrestling with. So, there is something obscure about the relations between the moral consideration, “it’s a human being”, and the characteristics that distinguish human beings and other creatures. If there is a human prejudice, it is structurally rather different from those other prejudices, racism and sexism.
This doesn’t necessarily show this isn’t a prejudice. Some critics will say on the contrary, it shows what a deep prejudice it is to the extent that we can’t even articulate reasons that are supposed to underly it! And if, as I said, we seem very ready to profess it, the critic will say, that it shows how shamelessly prejudiced we are, or that we can profess it, express it because very significantly we have no one to justify it to, except a few reformers that are fellow human beings. That certainly is a significant fact and we have to bear it in mind. Other animals on this planet are good at many things but not at asking for or understanding justification. Oppressed humans, women and minorities, come of age in the search for emancipation when they speak for themselves and no longer through reforming members of the oppressing group. But the other animals will never come of age. Human beings will always act as they are trustees. And that is connected to a point we shall come back to, that in relation to those other animals, the only moral question for us is how we should treat them.
Someone who speaks vigorously against speciesism and the human prejudice is of course Prof. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in this very university. As you don’t need telling here, he holds his chair at the said University Centre for Human Values. And I have wondered, I must say, what he makes of that name. In the purely possessive or limp sense, it is probably alright. But in the richer sense of the expression, human values, which must surely be its intention, I’d have thought it would have sounded to him like the Centre for Aryan Values! Whatever exactly may be the structure of the human prejudice, if it is a prejudice, Singer’s work has brought out very clearly some important consequences of rejecting it, consequences which he has been prepared to advocate in a robust style.
A central idea involved in the supposed human prejudice is that there are certain respects in which creatures are treated in one way rather than another simply because they belong to a certain category, the human species. We don’t at this basic initial level need to know any more about them. Told that there are human beings trapped in a burning building, on the strength of that fact alone, we mobilise as many resources as we can to rescue them. When the human prejudice is rejected, two things follow, Singer has made clear. One is that some more substantial set of properties supposedly better fitted to give reasons are substituted. The second is that the criteria based on those properties, the criteria which determine what you can properly do to a creature are applied to examples one at a time. It is always a question whether a particular individual satisfies the criteria.
Let us consider the question not of protecting but of killing. Singer thinks that our reasons for being less ready to kill human beings than we are to kill other animals, the “greater seriousness” of killing them as he puts it, are based on
our superior mental powers, our self-awareness, our rationality, our moral sense, our moral autonomy, or some combination of these. They are the kinds of things which we are inclined to say which make us uniquely human. To be more precise they are the kind of things that make us persons.
(Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics  by Peter Singer, edited by Helga Kuhse, p. 193)
Elsewhere, he cites with approval Michael Tooley’s definition of persons as “those beings who are capable of seeing themselves as continuing selves, i.e. as self-aware beings existing over time”. It is these characteristics that we should refer to when we are deciding what to do and in principle, we should refer to them on a case by case basis. “If we are considering whether it is wrong to destroy something, surely we need to look at its actual characteristics not just the species to which it belongs.” And “actual” here is taken in way that leaves no room for potentiality. You can’t say that an embryo gets special protection because it is potentially a person. It is not yet a person, therefore it is a non-person just as, in Tooley’s perhaps unlovely terminology, someone suffering from acute senile dementia is an ex-person.
As I have said, Singer brings out very clearly these two consequences of his view, namely, that we rely on some substantial properties — like those of personhood — other than belonging to the human race, and that we apply them case to case. And he relies on those consequences in arriving at various controversial conclusions. I am concerned with the view itself, the rejection of the human prejudice, rather than particular details of Singer’s own position. But there are a couple of points which I should mention in order to make clear what is at issue. First, what Singer rejects isn’t quite the form of prejudice to which I and many other people are attached. Singer considers the following syllogism.
Every human being has a right to life.
A human embryo is a human being.
Therefore, the human embryo has a right to life.
(UHL, p. 192)
It is certainly a valid argument; we better agree that the conclusions follow from the premises. Those who oppose abortion and destructive embryo research, people who particularly in the United States are sometimes called pro-lifers, think both those premises are true and therefore they accept the conclusion. Those who defend abortion and embryo experiment under certain circumstances have to reject one of the premises. They typically deny the second premise, namely that the human embryo is a human being. But Singer denies the first premise, namely every human being has a right to life. More strictly, he thinks that the first premise is correct only if “human being” means “person”. In that sense, the second premise is false: the human embryo isn’t yet a person. There is a sense in which the second premise is true because the embryo belongs to the species but in that sense of human being, it is not true that every human being has a right to life.
I mention is perhaps rather fiddly consideration because it distinguishes Singer from those such as most moderate pro-choice campaigners who accept obviously enough that the embryo is human in the sense that it is a human embryo, but don’t yet accept that it is yet a human being, any more than a bovine embryo is a cow. My colleague Jonathan Glover once caused nearly terminal fury in a distinguished pro-life advocate in England by what seemed to me the entirely reasonable remark that if this gentleman had been promised a chicken dinner and was served served with an omelette made of fertilised eggs, he’d have a complaint! The point is an important one. The standard view, the view which Singer attacks, is that “human being” is a morally relevant notion, where “human being” indeed means an animal belonging to a particular species, our species. But those who hold that view are not committed to thinking that a fertilised ovum is already such an animal any more so than the case of any other species. Singer sets up then the principle that the idea relevant to these moral questions is not the species term, human being, but the term person, where that brings in notions of self-awareness over time and so on. It must be said, and this is the second point, that he notably fails to apply this principle in a very thoroughgoing way.
Singer has become notorious for defending infanticide in certain circumstances. He does so because, I quote, “new born infants are in most morally respects more like fetuses than like older children or adults”. As he cheerfully puts it, “neither a fetus nor an infant has the conceptual wherewithal to contemplate a future or to want or value that future”. He then argues a case for possible infanticide in the case of seriously disabled infants. But why the restriction to seriously disabled infants. If the objection to killing human beings is the objection to killing persons, and infants aren’t persons, what’s the objection to killing any infant if you do it painlessly and there aren’t other objections such as distress to parents. If, for instance, they are simply a nuisance! I think a lot of the peculiarities of Singer’s position come in part from his concern with one kind of controversy. He is trying to combat conservative policies based on a particular notion of the sanctity of human life. This helps to explain why his position on abortion and infanticide is the same as the pro-life position but the other way up. He and the pro-lifers both argue if abortion, then infanticide, but they take that as an objection and he takes it as an encouragement! Against all these, it is very important to say that one can believe, as I believe, that the notion of the human being as a member of the species is central to our moral thought without being committed to the entire set of rules that go under the label “the sanctity of human life”.
The most basic question however is that raised by the general structure of Singer’s position rather than these details and it is the same kind of question we have encountered already. Why are the fancy properties grouped under the label of personhood “morally relevant” to issues of destroying a certain kind of animal while the property of being a human being isn’t? One answer might be that we favour and esteem these properties, we encourage their development, we resent and hate it if they are frustrated. And that is hardly surprising since our whole life and not only our values but our having values at all involve our having these properties ourselves. That is a fine answer but that doesn’t answer this question, since we also and in complex relation to all that do what Singer complains of, namely use the idea of a human being in our moral thought and draw a line around the class of human beings with regard to various things that we are ethically prepared to do. A different answer would be that it is simply better that the world should contain instances of the fancy properties of personhood but it is not simply better that the world should contain human beings as such but that is once more our now familiar friend, absolute importance, that survivor from the enchanted world bringing with it the equally familiar and encouraging thought that the properties we possess — well, most of us, not counting the infants, the Alzheimer’s patients, and a few others — are being cheered on by the universe.
I should say at once that this isn’t Singer’s own answer to the question. He is a Utilitarian and he thinks, very roughly speaking, that the only thing that ultimately matters is how much suffering there is. To the extent that we should give special attention to persons, this is supposedly explained by the fact that persons are capable of suffering in some special ways that other animals can’t suffer because they can foresee the future and so on. I don’t want to argue over the familiar territory of whether that is a reasonable or helpful explanation of all the things that we care about in relation to persons, namely whether the only thing that makes a difference is the various ways in which they can suffer. I want to ask something else which leads us back to my central question — our moral conceptions of ourselves as human beings living among other creatures. My question is not, does the utilitarian view make sense of our other concerns in terms of our concern with suffering? My question is rather, how far does the utilitarian view make sense of our concern with suffering itself?
Many utilitarians, including Singer, are happy to use the model of an Ideal or Impartial Observer. The idea of the model of an imaginary figure who knows everything, is equally impartial about everything, can take on board as it were all the suffering in the world. A philosopher proposing one version of such a model fifty years ago memorably described this figure as “omniscient, disinterested, dispassionate, but otherwise normal”!
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE IDEAL OBSERVER
1. He is omniscient with respect to non-ethical facts.
2. He is omnipercipient.
4. He is dispassionate.
5. He is consistent.
6. In other respects he is normal.
Roderick Firth, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer”.
The model comes in various versions in many of which the figure isn’t exactly dispassionate. Rather he is benevolent. That can mean several different things itself. But let’s concentrate on the simplest application of the idea that the ideal observer is against suffering and he wants there to be as little of it as possible. With his omniscience and impartiality, he so to speak takes on all suffering however we are to exactly conceive of that and he takes it all on equally. Now, he does begin to look a lot like a slimmed down surrogate of the Christian God and this might suggest that it represents yet another enactment of the cosmic point of the view. Suffering or its absence is what has absolute importance but I assume that utilitarians such as Singer hope that the model can be spelled out in more disenchanted terms.
They deploy the model against what they see as prejudice, in particular the human prejudice and the idea behind this is that there is a sentiment or disposition or conviction which we do have, namely compassion and sympathy or the belief that suffering is a bad thing, but, they claim, we express these sentiments in an irrationally restrictive way. The way in which our sentiments of sympathy or compassion for suffering work is governed by the notorious inverse square law. That is the further away the less you feel it roughly where the distances is involved can be of all kinds: spatial, they are on the other side of the world; familial; national, remember there’s always a headline in the Oxford paper when there is a vast earthquake somewhere in the other side of the world, “Oxford man injured in earthquake; racial, of course, notoriously governed by species membership. The model of the Ideal Observer is supposed to be a corrective. If we could take on all suffering, as he does, we wouldn’t be liable to these parochial biases and would feel and act in better ways. No doubt, the history of the device does lie in fact in the kind of secularised imatatio Christi and I suspect that some of the sentiments it mobilises are connected with that but the utilitarians hope to present it as independent of that as a device expressing an extensive rational correction of the kind of thing we indeed feel.
So, I want to take the model seriously in secular way, perhaps more seriously from a certain point of view than those who use it. I have got two problems with it. One is very familiar actually and concerns the relation between the model and human action. Even if we thought that the Ideal Observer’s outlook was a reliable guide to what would be a better state of affairs, how is that connected with what we each of us should be trying to do. With regard to animal suffering, a form of the problem that goes back to the 19th century, is the question of policing nature. Even though much suffering to animals is caused directly or indirectly by human beings. It is also true that an immense amount of it is caused by other animals. This suffering must form a significant part of what is on the Ideal Observer’s screen. While we are certainly in the business of reducing harm caused by other animals to ourselves, we seek in some degree to reduce the harm we cause to other animals. The question arises as to whether we should be in the business of reducing the harm that other animals cause to each other and generally in the business of reducing the suffering that goes on in nature. Utilitarians do offer some argument to suggest that we shouldn’t bother with that, arguments about saving our energy and time and so on but I have found it hard to avoid the feeling that those answers are pallid and unconvincing rationalisations of a more basic reaction that there is something altogether crazy about the idea, that it misrepresents our relation to nature. Some environmentalists of course think that we shouldn’t try to improve nature in this respect because nature is sacred and we should interfere with it as little as possible anyway. But they certainly aren’t governed simply by the model of Ideal Observer and his concern for suffering.
This leads to a more fundamental point. Those who see our selective sympathies as a biased and prejudiced filtering of the suffering of the world, who think in terms of our shadowing as far as we can the consciousness of the Ideal Observer and guiding our actions by reflection and what the Ideal Observer takes on, I wonder whether they consider what it would really be like to take on what the Ideal Observer supposedly takes on. Whatever exactly “takes on” may mean, it is supposed to imply this: that the sufferings of other people, of all other creatures should be as vividly present to us in some sense, as closely connected with our reasons for action, as our own suffering, of those of people we care for who are immediately at hand. That is how the model is supposed to correct for bias. But what would it conceivably be like for this to be so even for a few seconds. What would it be like to “take on” every piece of suffering that at a given moment any creature is undergoing. It would be an ultimate horror. An unendurable nightmare. And what would be the connection of that nightmare to our actions. In the model, the ideal observer is supposed just to be an observer. He can’t do anything. But our action, the idea is, is supposed to shadow or be guided by reflection on what he and his omniscience and impartiality is taking on. And if for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of what that is and really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could. And if other planets containing conscious creatures are similar to ours in the suffering they contain, we would annihilate them as well.
This model has got things totally inside out. We indeed have reasons to listen to our sympathies and to extend them not only to wider groups of human beings but into a concern for other animals so far as they are in our power. That is already a human disposition. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “humane” reads
marked by sympathy with the consideration for the needs and distresses of others; feeling or showing compassion and tenderness towards human beings and the lower animals …
We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life. It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we can’t care about all the suffering in the world. It is a condition of our existence and our sanity. Equally it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns including our own by criteria including our own by criteria derived from nowhere. We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent. We can think about how this human estate or settlement should be run and about its impact on its surroundings. But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. It is an irony that this illusion, even when it takes the form of rejecting so-called speciesism and the human prejudice, actually shares a structure with older illusions about there being a cosmic scale of importance in terms of which human beings should understand themselves.
If we look at it in the light of those old illusions, this outlook — namely, the opposition to the human prejudice — will be closer in spirit to what I called the Lutheran version than to the celebratory version, in virtue of its insistence that human beings are twisted by their selfishness. It is unlike the Lutheran outlook, of course, precisely in its anti-humanism: Luther thought that it did matter to the universe what happened to mankind, but this view thinks that all that matters to the universe is, roughly speaking, how much suffering it contains. But there is another difference as well. Luther thought that human beings could not redeem themselves unaided, but the opponents of the human prejudice typically think that with the help of rationality and these theories, they may be able to do so.
I have said that it is itself part of a human, or humane, outlook to be concerned with how animals should be treated, and there is nothing in what I have said to suggest that we should not be concerned with that. But I do want to repeat something that I have said elsewhere, that, very significantly, the only question for us is how those animals should be treated. That is not true of our relations to other human beings, and that already shows that we are not dealing with a prejudice like racism or sexism. Some white male who thinks that the only question about the relations between “us,” as he puts it, “white males”, and other human beings, namely, women and people of colour is how “we” should treat “them” is already prejudiced, but in the case of other animals that is the only question there could be.
That is how it is here, on this planet, now; it is a consequence of the fact I mentioned earlier, that in terms of a range of abilities that control action, we happen to live on an evolutionary plateau. Human beings do not have to deal with any creature that in terms of argument, principle, worldview, or whatever, can answer back. But it might be otherwise; and it may be helpful, in closing, to imagine something different. Suppose that, in the well-known way of science fiction, creatures arrive with whom to some extent we can communicate, who are intelligent and technologically advanced (they got here, after all), who have relations with one another that are mediated by understood rules, and so on and so forth. Now there is an altogether new sort of question for the human prejudice. If these culturally ordered creatures arrived, a human being who thought that it was just a question of how we should treat them has seriously underestimated the problem, both ethically and, probably, prudentially.
The late Robert Nozick once gave it as an argument for vegetarianism that if we claimed the right to eat animals less smart than ourselves, we would have to concede the right to such visitors to eat us, if they were smarter than us to the degree that we are smarter than the animals we eat.
What about persons distinguishes them from animals, so that stringent constraints apply to how persons may be treated, yet not to how animals may be treated? Could beings from another galaxy stand to us as it is usually thought we do to animals, and if so, would they be justified in treating us as means à la utilitarianism? Are organisms arranged on some ascending scale, so that any may be sacrificed or caused to suffer to achieve a greater total benefit for those not lower on the scale?
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 45.
In fact, I don’t think that it is an argument for vegetarianism, but rather an objection to one argument for meat eating, and I am not too sure how good it is even as that. But the main point is that if they proposed to eat us, it would be quite crazy to debate their rights at all! The nineteenth-century egoist philosopher Max Stirner said, “The tiger that assails me is in the right, and I who strike him down am also in the right. I defend against him not my right, but myself.”
But Stirner’s remark concerns a tiger, and it is a matter of life and death. Much science fiction, such as the puerile movie Independence Day, defines the issue in those terms from the beginning and so makes the issues fairly easy. It is fairly easy, too, if the aliens are just here to help, in terms that we can recognize as help. The standard codings of science fiction, particularly in movies, are designed to make such questions simple. The hostile and nasty tend to be either slimy and disgusting, or rigid and metallic — in one brilliant literary example, Wells’s The War of the Worlds, they are both at once. The nice and co-operative are furry like the co-pilot in Star Wars, or cute like ET, or ethereal fairies like those little things in the bright light at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, we can imagine situations in which things would be harder. The arrivals might be very disgusting indeed: their faces, for instance, if those are faces, are seething with what seem to be worms, but if we wait long enough to find out what they are at, we may gather that they are quite benevolent. They just want to live with us — rather closely with us! What should we make of that proposal? Some philosophers may be at hand to remind us about distinguishing between moral and non-moral values, and to tell us that their benevolence and helpfulness are morally significant whereas the fact that they are unforgettably disgusting is not. But suppose their aim, in their unaggressive way, is to make the world more, as we would put it, disgusting? And what if their disgustingness is really, truly, unforgettable?
Or we could turn things around in a different direction. The aliens are, in terms of our preferences, moderately good-looking, and they are, again, extremely benevolent and reasonable; but they have had much more successful experience than we have in running peaceable societies, and they have found that they do need to run them, and that too much species-self-assertion or indeed cultural autonomy proved to be destabilizing and destructive. So, painlessly, they will rid us, certainly of our prejudices, and, to the required extent, of some of our cultural and other peculiarities. What should we make of that? Would the opponents of speciesism want us to join them — join them, indeed, not on the ground that we could not beat them — which might be sensible if not very heroic — but on principle?
The situation that this fantasy presents is in some ways familiar. It is like that of a human group defending its cultural, possibly ethnic, identity against some other human group which claims to dominate or assimilate them, with this very large difference, however, that since we are dealing here with another and indeed non-terrestrial species, there is no question of cultural or ethnic variation being eroded by sexual fusion. Indeed, from the perspective of sex, it must be said, the idea that speciesism, racism, and yet again gender prejudice are all alike, does look extremely peculiar.
Anyway, the fantasy situation with the aliens will resemble the familiar political situation in some ways. For one thing, there may well be a disagreement among the threatened group — in this case, human beings — in part an ethical disagreement, between those who think the invaders are right and we ought to side with them, let us call them the collaborationists, and others who are resisters. It looks as though the Utilitarians will be committed to joining the collaborationists. In this fantasy case, the resisters will be organizing under the banner “Defend humanity” or “Stand up for human beings.” That is an ethical appeal in an ethical dispute. Of course, this does not make “human being” into an ethical concept, any more than the cause of Basque separatism — an ethical cause, as Basque separatists see it — makes “Basque” into an ethical concept. The relevant ethical concept is something like: loyalty to, or identity with, one’s ethnic or cultural grouping; and in the fantasy case, the ethical concept is: loyalty to one’s species. Moreover — and this is the significant lesson of this fantasy — this is an ethical concept we have already. It is the one we are using implicitly all the time, when for instance, in the context of our ethical thought, we appeal to the fact that a creature is a human being. It is simply that as things are in real life — because we live on this evolutionary plateau — we don’t spell it out, because there is no other creature in our life who could use or be motivated by the same consideration but with a different application: that is to say, there is no creature belonging to some other species can articulate, reflect on, or be motivated by reasons appealing to their species membership.
So, the idea of there being an ethical concept that appeals to our species membership is entirely coherent. It is shown by the fantasy case and its actual case is familiar in the actual case. Of course, there may be ethical arguments about the merits or value of any such concept, namely, a concept that appeals to something like loyalty to group membership or identity with it. Some people, in the spirit of those who would be collaborationists in the fantasy case, are against such ideas. It is notable in the political morality in the present time, that some people seem to be opposed to such attitudes in dominant groups but very much in favour of them for subordinate groups. Others, again, may be respectful of the energizing power of such conceptions, and of the sense they can give of a life that has a rich and particular character, as contrasted, at the extreme, with the Utilitarian ideal of the itinerant welfare-worker who, with his bad line to the Ideal Observer, goes round turning on and off the taps of benevolence. At the same time, however, those who respect these conceptions of loyalty and identity may be rightly sceptical about the coercive rhetoric, the lies about differences, and the sheer violence that are often associated with such ideas and with the movements that express them. Some of those objections no doubt carry over to the ways in which we express species identity and loyalty as things actually are, and that is why the opponents of so-called speciesism and the human prejudice quite often have a point about particular policies toward other animals, even though they are mistaken about the framework of ideas within which they condemn those things.
Should we conclude that the human prejudice, if one wants to call it that, must ultimately be inescapable. Let us go back once more to the fantasy of the arrival of the benevolent managerial aliens, and the consequent debate among human beings between the collaborationists, who want to join them, and the resisters, who want to run the human independence movement. In that debate, even the collaborationists have to use a humanly intelligible discourse, arguments which their fellow human beings can recognize. If that meant that their arguments would have to be peculiar to human beings, then their situation would indeed be paradoxical. It would be as though, in the familiar political discussions about, say, the cultural identity of the Basques, even the assimilationists had to use only arguments peculiar to Basque culture. So, let us suppose that it does not mean that, that is, although they have to use arguments which are comprehensible to other human beings, they are not arguments peculiar to, as it were, the separatists or the resisters. The relevant alternative, I think, in the fantasy case is that the collaborationists use arguments which they share not only with their fellow human beings but with the aliens. Indeed, many moral philosophers think that the correct moral principles are ones that could be shared with any rational and reflective agents, whatever they were otherwise like.
But even if this were so, those principles would not necessarily tell us and these creatures how to share a life together. Maybe we and they would be too different in other respects for that to be possible. Remember the disgusting benevolent aliens. And the best we could do is to establish a non-aggression pact with them and co-exist at a distance. That would leave our prejudices where they were. But suppose that we are to live together. There is no reason to suppose that the universal principles we share with the aliens will justify our prejudices. We cannot even be sure that they will justify our being allowed to have our prejudices, as a matter of toleration; as I said in setting up the fantasy, the long experience and benevolent understanding possessed by the aliens may enable them to see that tolerating our kinds of prejudice leads to instability and injustice, so they will want to usher our prejudices out, and on these assumptions we should agree. The collaborationists must be right it seems, because their moral conceptions they share with the aliens transcend the local peculiarities.
But if this is so, doesn’t something even stronger follow? I said, in setting up these space-fiction fantasies, that the Independence Day scenario, in which the aliens are manifestly hostile and want to destroy us, is, for us, an ethically easy case: we try to defend ourselves. No doubt, we shall try. But should we try? Perhaps, the critics will say, this is just another irrational, visceral, human reaction to defend ourselves in this situation. The benevolent and fair-minded and far-sighted aliens may know a great deal about us and our history, and understand that our prejudices are unreformable: that things will never be better in this part of the universe until we are removed. I am not saying that this is necessarily what such aliens would think. I am not saying that the universal moralists, the potential collaborationists, would necessarily agree with them. But I don’t see that if they disagree, they could be certain that was just not another self-serving prejudice. This, it seems to me, is a place at which the project of trying to transcend altogether the ways in which human beings understand themselves and make sense of their practices could end up. And here I can only ask, we can only ask at this stage: what side are you on?
In many, more limited, connections, hopes for self-improvement lie very close to the risk of self-hatred. When the hope is to improve humanity to the point at which every aspect of its hold on the world can be justified before a higher court, the result is likely to be either self-deception, if you think you have succeeded, or misanthropy, when you recognize that you will always fail. Personally, while I think that there are many things to loathe about human beings, their sense of their ethical identity as a species is not one of them.