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AR Philosophy > Morality Index

Moral Constraints and Animals
by Robert Nozick


Excerpted from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, BasicBooks, 1974.

ARRS Administrator Note: This philosophical attack on ethical systems that attempt to justify the unconstrained use of animals pre-dates Singer's "Animal Liberation". It poses some very difficult challenges to those who would justify an asymmetry centered on humans (and also some challenges for those proposing symmetry!). Some will find it heavy going, but it contains insights well worth working for.


Constraints and Animals

We can illuminate the status and implications of moral side constraints by considering living beings for whom such stringent side constraints (or any at all) usually are not considered appropriate: namely, nonhuman animals. Are there any limits to what we may do to animals? Have animals the moral status of mere objects? Do some purposes fail to entitle us to impose great costs on animals? What entitles us to use them at all?

Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people's deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We first shall adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, un-owned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

Some say people should not do so because such acts brutalize them and make them more likely to take the lives of persons, solely for pleasure. These acts that are morally unobjectionable in themselves, they say, have an undesirable moral spillover. (Things then would be different if there were no possibility of such spillover -- for example, for the person who knows himself to be the last person on earth.) But why should there be such a spillover? If it is, in itself, perfectly all right to do anything at all to animals for any reason whatsoever, then provided a person realizes the clear line between animals and persons and keeps it in mind as he acts, why should killing animals tend to brutalize him and make him more likely to harm or kill persons? Do butchers commit more murders? (Than other persons who have knives around?) If I enjoy hitting a baseball squarely with a bat, does this significantly increase the danger of my doing the same to someone's head? Am I not capable of understanding that people differ from baseballs, and doesn't this understanding stop the spillover? Why should things be different in the case of animals? To be sure, it is an empirical question whether spillover does take place or not; but there is a puzzle as to why it should, at least among readers of this essay, sophisticated people who are capable of drawing distinctions and differentially acting upon them.

If some animals count for something, which animals count, how much do they count, and how can this be determined? Suppose (as I believe the evidence supports) that eating animals is not necessary for health and is not less expensive than alternate equally healthy diets available to people in the United States. The gain, then, from the eating of animals is pleasures of the palate, gustatory delights, varied tastes. I would not claim that these are not truly pleasant, delightful, and interesting. The question is: do they, or rather does the marginal addition in them gained by eating animals rather than only nonanimals, outweigh the moral weight to be given to animals' lives and pain? Given that animals are to count for something, is the extra gain obtained by eating them rather than nonanimal products greater than the moral cost? How might these questions be decided?

We might try looking at comparable cases, extending whatever judgments we make on those cases to the one before us. For example, we might look at the case of hunting, where I assume that it's not all right to hunt and kill animals merely for the fun of it. Is hunting a special case, because its object and what provides the fun is the chasing and maiming and death of animals? Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. It's unfortunate that as a side effect (not a means) of my doing this, the animal's skull gets smashed. To be sure, I could forego swinging the bat, and instead bend down and touch my toes or do some other exercise. But this wouldn't be as enjoyable as swinging the bat; I won't get as much fun, pleasure, or delight out of it. So the question is: would it be all right for me to swing the bat in order to get the extra pleasure of swinging it as compared to the best available alternative activity that does not involve harming the animal? Suppose that it is not merely a question of foregoing today's special pleasures of bat swinging; suppose that each day the same situation arises with a different animal. Is there some principle that would allow killing and eating animals for the additional pleasure this brings, yet would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings? What could that principle be like? (Is this a better parallel to eating meat? The animal is killed to get a bone out of which to make the best sort of bat to use; bars made out of other material don't give quite the same pleasure. Is it all right to kill the animal to obtain the extra pleasure that using a bat made out of its bone would bring? Would it be morally more permissible if you could hire someone to do the killing for you?)

Such examples and questions might help someone to see what sort of line he wishes to draw, what sort of position he wishes to take. They face, however, the usual limitations of consistency arguments; they do not say, once a conflict is shown, which view to change. After failing to devise a principle to distinguish swinging the bat from killing and eating an animal, you might decide that it's really all right, after all, to swing the bat. Furthermore, such appeal to similar cases does not greatly help us to assign precise moral weight to different sorts of animals. (We further discuss the difficulties in forcing a moral conclusion by appeal to examples in Chapter 9.)

My purpose here in presenting these examples is to pursue the notion of moral side constraints, not the issue of eating animals. Though I should say that in my view the extra benefits Americans today can gain from eating animals do not justify doing it. So we shouldn't. One ubiquitous argument, not unconnected with side constraints, deserves mention: because people eat animals, they raise more than otherwise would exist without this practice. To exist for a while is better than never to exist at all. So (the argument concludes) the animals are better off because we have the practice of eating them. Though this is not our object, fortunately it turns out that we really, all along, benefit them! (If tastes changed and people no longer found it enjoyable to eat animals, should those concerned with the welfare of animals steel themselves to an unpleasant task and continue eating them?) I trust I shall not be misunderstood as saying that animals are to be given the same moral weight as people if I note that the parallel argument about people would not look very convincing. We can imagine that population problems lead every couple or group to limit their children to some number fixed in advance. A given couple, having reached the number, proposes to have an additional child and dispose of it at the age of three (or twenty-three) by sacrificing it or using it for some gastronomic purpose. In justification, they note that the child will not exist at all if this is not allowed; and surely it is better for it to exist for some number of years. However, once a person exists, not everything compatible with his overall existence being a net plus can be done, even by those who created him. An existing person has claims, even against those whose purpose in creating him was to violate those claims. It would be worthwhile to pursue moral objections to a system that permits parents to do anything whose permissibility is necessary for their choosing to have the child, that also leaves the child better off than if it hadn't been born. (Some will think the only objections arise from difficulties in accurately administering the permission.) Once they exist, animals too may have claims to certain treatment. These claims may well carry less weight than those of people. But the fact that some animals were brought into existence only because someone wanted to do something that would violate one of these claims does not show that the claim doesn't exist at all.

Consider the following (too minimal) position about the treatment of animals. So that we can easily refer to it, let us label this position "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people." It says: (1) maximize the total happiness of all living beings; (2) place stringent side constraints on what one may do to human beings. Human beings may not be used or sacrificed for the benefit of others; animals may be used or sacrificed for the benefit of other people or animals only if those benefits are greater than the loss inflicted. (This inexact statement of the utilitarian position is close enough for our purposes, and it can be handled more easily in discussion.) One may proceed only if the total utilitarian benefit is greater than the utilitarian loss inflicted on the animals. This utilitarian view counts animals as much as normal utilitarianism does persons. Following Orwell, we might summarize this view as: all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. (None may be sacrificed except for a greater total benefit; but persons may not be sacrificed at all, or only under far more stringent conditions, and never for the benefit of nonhuman animals. I mean (1) above merely to exclude sacrifices which do not meet the utilitarian standard, not to mandate a utilitarian goal. We shall call this position negative utilitarianism.)

We can now direct arguments for animals counting for something to holders of different views. To the "Kantian" moral philosopher who imposes stringent side constraints on what may be done to a person, we can say:

You hold utilitarianism inadequate because it allows an individual to be sacrificed to and for another, and so forth, thereby neglecting the stringent limitations on how one legitimately may behave toward-persons. But could there be anything morally intermediate between persons and stones, something without such stringent limitations on its treatment, yet not to be treated merely as an object? One would expect that by subtracting or diminishing some features of persons, we would get this intermediate sort of being. (Or perhaps beings of intermediate moral status are gotten by subtracting some of our characteristics and adding others very different from ours.)

Plausibly, animals are the intermediate beings, and utilitarianism is the intermediate position. We may come at the question from a slightly different angle. Utilitarianism assumes both that happiness is all that matters morally and that all beings are interchangeable. This conjunction does not hold true of persons. But isn't (negative) utilitarianism true of whatever beings the conjunction does hold for, and doesn't it hold for animals?

To the utilitarian we may say:

If only the experiences of pleasure, pain, happiness, and so on (and the capacity for these experiences) are morally relevant, then animals must be counted in moral calculations to the extent they do have these capacities and experiences. Form a matrix where the rows represent alternative policies or actions, the columns represent different individual organisms, and each entry represents the utility (net pleasure, happiness) the policy will lead to for the organism. The utilitarian theory evaluates each policy by the sum of the entries in its row and directs us to perform an action or adopt a policy whose sum is maximal. Each column is weighted equally and counted once, be it that of a person or a nonhuman animal. Though the structure of the view treats them equally, animals might be less important in the decisions because of facts about them. If animals have less capacity for pleasure, pain, happiness than humans do, the matrix entries in animals' columns will be lower generally than those in people's columns. In this case, they will be less important factors in the ultimate decisions to be made.

A utilitarian would find it difficult to deny animals this kind of equal consideration. On what grounds could he consistently distinguish persons' happiness from that of animals, to count only the former? Even if experiences don't get entered in the utility matrix unless they are above a certain threshold, surely some animal experiences are greater than some people's experiences that the utilitarian wishes to count. (Compare an animal's being burned alive unanesthetized with a person's mild annoyance.) Bentham, we may note, does count animals' happiness equally in just the way we have explained.

Under "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people," animals will be used for the gain of other animals and persons, but persons will never be used (harmed, sacrificed) against their will, for the gain of animals. Nothing may be inflicted upon persons for the sake of animals. (Including penalties for violating laws against cruelty to animals?) Is this an acceptable consequence? Can't one save 10,000 animals from excruciating suffering by inflicting some slight discomfort on a person who did not cause the animals' suffering? One may feel the side constraint is not absolute when it is people who can be saved from excruciating suffering. So perhaps the side constraint also relaxes, though not as much, when animals' suffering is at stake. The thoroughgoing utilitarian (for animals and for people, combined in one group) goes further and holds that, ceteris paribus, we may inflict some suffering on a person to avoid a (slightly) greater suffering of an animal. This permissive principle seems to me to be unacceptably strong, even when the purpose is to avoid greater suffering to a person!

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility. Similarly if people are utility devourers with respect to animals, always getting greatly counterbalancing utility from each sacrifice of an animal, we may feel that "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people," in requiring (or allowing) that almost always animals be sacrificed, makes animals too subordinate to persons.

Since it counts only the happiness and suffering of animals, would the utilitarian view hold it all right to kill animals painlessly? Would it be all right, on the utilitarian view, to kill people painlessly, in the night, provided one didn't first announce it? Utilitarianism is notoriously inept with decisions where the number of persons is at issue. (In this area, it must be conceded, eptness is hard to come by.) Maximizing the total happiness requires continuing to add persons so long as their net utility is positive and is sufficient to counterbalance the loss in utility their presence in the world causes others. Maximizing the average utility allows a person to kill everyone else if that would make him ecstatic, and so happier than average. (Don't say he shouldn't because after his death the average would drop lower than if he didn't kill all the others.) Is it all right to kill someone provided you immediately substitute another (by having a child or, in science-fiction fashion, by creating a full-grown person) who will be as happy as the rest of the life of the person you killed? After all, there would be no net diminution in total utility, or even any change in its profile of distribution. Do we forbid murder only to prevent feelings of worry on the part of potential victims? (And how does a utilitarian explain what it is they're worried about, and would he really base a policy on what he must hold to be an irrational fear?) Clearly, a utilitarian needs to supplement his view to handle such issues; perhaps he will find that the supplementary theory becomes the main one, relegating utilitarian considerations to a corner.

But isn't utilitarianism at least adequate for animals? I think not. But if not only the animals' felt experiences are relevant, what else is? Here a tangle of questions arises. How much does an animal's life have to be respected once it's alive, and how can we decide this? Must one also introduce some notion of a nondegraded existence? Would it be all right to use genetic-engineering techniques to breed natural slaves who would be contented with their lots? Natural animal slaves? Was that the domestication of animals? Even for animals, utilitarianism won't do as the whole story, but the thicket of questions daunts us.  

The Experience Machine

There are also substantial puzzles when we ask what matters other than how people's experiences feel "from the inside." Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you've decided and the moment you're plugged. What's a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that's what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we've done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It's not merely that it's difficult to tell; there's no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance. [1] This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender!

We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn't meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we'd like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and thereupon plug into the experience machine! [2] So something matters in addition to one's experiences and what one is like. Nor is the reason merely that one's experiences are unconnected with what one is like. For the experience machine might be limited to provide only experiences possible to the sort of person plugged in. Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine, which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity. We shall not pursue here the fascinating details of these or other machines. What is most disturbing about them is their living of our lives for us. Is it misguided to search for particular additional functions beyond the competence of machines to do for us? Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.) Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other than their experiences. Until one finds a satisfactory answer, and determines that this answer does not also apply to animals, one cannot reasonably claim that only the felt experiences of animals limit what we may do to them.

 

Underdetermination of Moral Theory

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 a 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? [3] Such an elitist hierarchical view would distinguish three moral statuses (forming an interval partition of the scale):

Status 1: The being may not be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, for any other organism's sake.

Status 2: The being may be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, only for the sake of beings higher on the scale, but not for the sake of beings at the same level.

Status 3: The being may be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, for the sake of other beings at the same or higher levels on the scale.

If animals occupy status 3 and we occupy status 1, what occupies status 2? Perhaps we occupy status 2! Is it morally forbidden to use people as means for the benefit of others, or is it only forbidden to use them for the sake of other people, that is, for beings at the same level? [4] Do ordinary views include the possibility of more than one significant moral divide (like that between persons and animals), and might one come on the other side of human beings? Some theological views hold that God is permitted to sacrifice people for his own purposes. We also might imagine people encountering beings from another planet who traverse in their childhood whatever "stages" of moral development our developmental psychologists can identify. These beings claim that they all continue on through fourteen further sequential stages, each being necessary to enter the next one. However, they cannot explain to us (primitive as we are) the content and modes of reasoning of these later stages. These beings claim that we may be sacrificed for their well-being, or at least in order to preserve their higher capacities. They say that they see the truth of this now that they are in their moral maturity, though they didn't as children at what is our highest level of moral development. (A story like this, perhaps, reminds us that a sequence of developmental stages, each a precondition for the next, may after some point deteriorate rather than progress. It would be no recommendation of senility to point out that in order to reach it one must have passed first through other stages.) Do our moral views permit our sacrifice for the sake of these beings' higher capacities, including their moral ones? This decision is not easily disentangled from the epistemological effects of contemplating the existence of such moral authorities who differ from us, while we admit that, being fallible, we may be wrong. (A similar effect would obtain even if we happened not to know which view of the matter these other beings actually held.)

Beings who occupy the intermediate status 2 will be sacrificeable, but not for the sake of beings at the same or lower levels. If they never encounter or know of or affect beings higher in the hierarchy, then they will occupy the highest level for every situation they actually encounter and deliberate over. It will be as if an absolute side constraint prohibits their being sacrificed for any purpose. Two very different moral theories, the elitist hierarchical theory placing people in status 2 and the absolute-side-constraint theory, yield exactly the same moral judgments for the situations people actually have faced and account equally well for (almost) all of the moral judgments we have made. ("Almost all," because we make judgments about hypothetical situations, and these may include some involving "superbeings" from another planet.) This is not the philosopher's vision of two alternative theories accounting equally well for all of the possible data. Nor is it merely the claim that by various gimmicks a side-constraint view can be put into the form of a maximizing view. Rather, the two alternative theories account for all of the actual data, the data about cases we have encountered heretofore; yet they diverge significantly for certain other hypothetical situations.

It would not be surprising if we found it difficult to decide which theory to believe. For we have not been obliged to think about these situations; they are not the situations that shaped our views. Yet the issues do not concern merely whether superior beings may sacrifice us for their sakes. They also concern what we ought to do. For if there are other such beings, the elitist hierarchical view does not collapse into the "Kantian" side-constraint view, as far as we are concerned. A person may not sacrifice one of his fellows for his own benefit or that of another of his fellows, but may he sacrifice one of his fellows for the benefit of the higher beings? (We also will be interested in the question of whether the higher beings may sacrifice us for their own benefit.)

 

What are Constraints Based Upon?

Such questions do not press upon us as practical problems (yet?), but they force us to consider fundamental issues about the foundations of our moral views: first, is our moral view a side-constraint view, or a view of a more complicated hierarchical structure; and second, in virtue of precisely what characteristics of persons are there moral constraints on how they may treat each other or be treated? We also want to understand why these characteristics connect with these constraints. (And, perhaps, we want these characteristics not to be had by animals; or not had by them in as high a degree.) It would appear that a person's characteristics, by virtue of which others are constrained in their treatment of him, must themselves be valuable characteristics. How else are we to understand why something so valuable emerges from them? (This natural assumption is worth further scrutiny.)

The traditional proposals for the important individuating characteristic connected with moral constraints are the following: sentient and self-conscious; rational (capable of using abstract concepts, not tied to responses to immediate stimuli); possessing free will; being a moral agent capable of guiding its behavior by moral principles and capable of engaging in mutual limitation of conduct; having a soul. Let us ignore questions about how these notions are precisely to be understood, and whether the characteristics are possessed, and possessed uniquely, by man, and instead seek their connection with moral constraints on others. Leaving aside the last on the list, each of them seems insufficient to forge the requisite connection. Why is the fact that a being is very smart or foresightful or has an I.Q. above a certain threshold a reason to limit specially how we treat it? Would beings even more intelligent than we have the right not to limit themselves with regard to us? Or, what is the significance of any purported crucial threshold? If a being is capable of choosing autonomously among alternatives, is there some reason to let it do so? Are autonomous choices intrinsically good? If a being could make only once an autonomous choice, say between flavors of ice cream on a particular occasion, and would forget immediately afterwards, would there be strong reasons to allow it to choose? That a being can agree with others to mutual rule-governed limitations on conduct shows that it can observe limits. But it does not show which limits should be observed toward it ("no abstaining from murdering it"?), or why any limits should be observed at all.

An intervening variable M is needed for which the listed traits are individually necessary, perhaps jointly sufficient (at least we should be able to see what needs to be added to obtain M), and which has a perspicuous and convincing connection to moral constraints on behavior toward someone with M. Also, in the light of M, we should be in a position to see why others have concentrated on the traits of rationality, free will, and moral agency. This will be easier if these traits are not merely necessary conditions for M but also are important components of M or important means to M.

But haven't we been unfair in treating rationality, free will, and moral agency individually and separately? In conjunction, don't they add up to something whose significance is clear: a being able to formulate long-term plans for its life, able to consider and decide on the basis of abstract principles or considerations it formulates to itself and hence not merely the plaything of immediate stimuli, a being that limits its own behavior in accordance with some principles or picture it has of what an appropriate life is for itself and others, and so on. However, this exceeds the three listed traits. We can distinguish theoretically between long-term planning and an overall conception of a life that guides particular decisions, and the three traits that are their basis. For a being could possess these three traits and yet also have built into it some particular barrier that prevents it from operating in terms of an overall conception of its life and what it is to add up to. So let us add, as an additional feature, the ability to regulate and guide its life in accordance with some overall conception it chooses to accept. Such an overall conception, and knowing how we are doing in terms of it, is important to the kind of goals we formulate for ourselves and the kind of beings we are. Think how different we would be (and how differently it would be legitimate to treat us) if we all were amnesiacs, forgetting each evening as we slept the happenings of the preceding day. Even if by accident someone were to pick up each day where he left off the previous day, living in accordance with a coherent conception an aware individual might have chosen, he still would not be leading the other's sort of life. His life would parallel the other life, but it would not be integrated in the same way.

What is the moral importance of this additional ability to form a picture of one's whole life (or at least of significant chunks of it) and to act in terms of some overall conception of the life one wishes to lead? Why not interfere with someone else's shaping of his own life? (And what of those not actively shaping their lives, but drifting with the forces that play upon them?) One might note that anyone might come up with the pattern of life you would wish to adopt. Since one cannot predict in advance that someone won't, it is in your self-interest to allow another to pursue his conception of his life as he sees it; you may learn (to emulate or avoid or modify) from his example. This prudential argument seems insufficient.

I conjecture that the answer is connected with that elusive and difficult notion: the meaning of life. A person's shaping his life in accordance with some overall plan is his way of giving meaning to his life; only a being with the capacity to so shape his life can have or strive for meaningful life. But even supposing that we could elaborate and clarify this notion satisfactorily, we would face many difficult questions. Is the capacity so to shape a life itself the capacity to have (or strive for?) a life with meaning, or is something else required? (For ethics, might the content of the attribute of having a soul simply be that the being strives, or is capable of striving, to give meaning to its life?) Why are there constraints on how we may treat beings shaping their lives? Are certain modes of treatment incompatible with their having meaningful lives? And even if so, why not destroy meaningful lives? Or, why not replace "happiness" with "meaningfulness" within utilitarian theory, and maximize the total "meaningfulness" score of the persons of the world? Or does the notion of the meaningfulness of a life enter into ethics in a different fashion? This notion, we should note, has the right "feel" as something that might help to bridge an "is-ought" gap; it appropriately seems to straddle the two. Suppose, for example, that one could show that if a person acted in certain ways his life would be meaningless. Would this be a hypothetical or a categorical imperative? Would one need to answer the further question: "But why shouldn't my life be meaningless?" Or, suppose that acting in a certain way toward others was itself a way of granting that one's own life (and those very actions) was meaningless. Mightn't this, resembling a pragmatic contradiction, lead at least to a status 2 conclusion of side constraints in behavior to all other human beings? I hope to grapple with these and related issues on another occasion.

 

Notes

[1] Traditional religious views differ on the point of contact with a transcendent reality. Some say that contact yields eternal bliss or Nirvana, but they have not distinguished this sufficiently from merely a very long run on the experience machine. Others think it is intrinsically desirable to do the will of a higher being which created us all, though presumably no one would think this if we discovered we had been created as an object of amusement by some superpowerful child from another galaxy or dimension. Still others imagine an eventual merging with a higher reality, leaving unclear its desirability, or where that merging leaves us.

[2] Some wouldn't use the transformation machine at all; it seems like cheating. But the one-time use of the transformation machine would not remove all challenges; there would still be obstacles for the new us to overcome, a new plateau from which to strive even higher. And is this plateau any the less earned or deserved than that provided by genetic endowment and early childhood environment? But if the transformation machine could be used indefinitely often, so that we could accomplish anything by pushing a button to transform ourselves into someone who could do it easily, there would remain no limits we need to strain against or try to transcend. Would there be anything left to do? Do some theological views place God outside of time because an omniscient omnipotent being couldn't fill up his days?

[3] We pass over the difficulties about deciding where on the scale to place an organism, and about particular interspecies comparisons. How is it to be decided where on the scale a species goes? Is an organism, if defective, to be placed at its species level? Is it an anomaly that it might be impermissible to treat two currently identical organisms similarly (they might even be identical in future and past capacities as well), because one is a normal member of one species and the other is a subnormal member of a species higher on the scale? And the problems of intraspecies interpersonal comparisons pale before those of interspecies comparisons.

[4] Some would say that here we have a teleological view giving human beings infinite worth relative to other human beings. But a teleological theory that maximizes total value will not prohibit the sacrifice of some people for the sake of other people. Sacrificing some for others wouldn't produce a net gain, but there wouldn't be a net loss either. Since a teleological theory that gives each person's life equal weight excludes only a lowering of total value (to require that each act produce a gain in total value would exclude neutral acts), it would allow the sacrifice of one person for another. Without gimmicky devices similar to those mentioned earlier, for example, using indexical expressions in the infinitely weighted goals, or giving some goals (representing the constraints) an infinite weight of a higher order of infinity than others (even this won't quite do, and the details are very messy), views embodying a status 2 do not seem to be representable as teleological. This illustrates our earlier remark that "teleological" and "side constraint" do not exhaust the possible structures for a moral view.

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