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Without a TearOur Tragic Relationship with Animals
By MARK H. BERNSTEIN
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Principle of Gratuitous Suffering
A Cornerstone of Morality
My primary aim in this chapter is to introduce, articulate, and defend a fundamental moral principle that I dub the "Principle of Gratuitous Suffering" (PGS). On first hearing, the principle's truth appears virtually self-evident. Perhaps less immediately obvious is that acceptance of this principle has far-reaching effects on the extent of our moral obligations to nonhuman animals. If in the institutions of factory farming, hunting, vivisection, and other animal-related practices we intentionally inflict (or allow) gratuitous pain and suffering, the PGS tells us that we are acting immorally. From a moral point of view, we will be required to dramatically change much in our daily lives.
(PGS) It is morally wrong to intentionally inflict (or allow the infliction of) gratuitous pain or suffering on another, innocent individual.
Morality being a branch of philosophy, and philosophy promising more than a compendium of common sense, it is incumbent on me to do more than rely on the allegedly evident truth of the PGS for its general acceptance. Science, for example, is replete with examples of putatively obvious truths that turned out to be not only not obvious but also not true. We need only to remind ourselves of the Copernican revolution, which demonstrated the falsity of the "obvious" belief that the earth is the center of the solar system. It would therefore be disingenuous to think that I can leave the viability of the PGS to so-called common sense. I need to explicate the PGS and try to rebut accusations that it is false. Philosophers have denied the existence of the entire external world, thought that we have no knowledge of the existence of minds other than our own, and believed that we never act freely. It should come as something less than a shock that some thinkers may balk at accepting PGS. Moreover, responding to possible criticisms should have a salutary effect even on those who need no convincing. Just as theists may intellectually benefit from being shown that the arguments for atheism are less compelling than they might initially appear, those who intuitively accept the PGS may have their belief strengthened when the disbelievers' objections are deflected.
The Nature of the PGS
Thought experiments are fictional narratives that prime intuitions to elicit general conclusions. The events described in the narrative may never happen. In fact, both the storyteller and the audience may be quite certain that the events will never occur. All that is required is that the story be intelligible, that we know what the world would be like were these circumstances ever to come into play. To pass muster, a thought experiment need only be logically consistent, or possibly true.
Imagine finding yourself at a remote corner of our galaxy. For my purposes, it makes no difference how you arrived. Perhaps you are the lone survivor of a rocket that crashed after traveling far off course. Perhaps God simply willed you to be there. After walking a short distance, you happen on an object unlike anything you have previously seen. It looks a bit like a human and somewhat like a tree and bears some resemblance to a granite boulder. Suppose that you have only the following information (again, perhaps by the grace of God). First, you know that this thing has the capacity to suffer. Like you, it can feel pain, get frustrated, become depressed, and undergo the myriad psychological and physical travails that diminish the quality of a person's life. Second, you know what can cause this object to suffer, how to cause it to suffer, and how to prevent its suffering from sources other than yourself. Last, you know that this thing has neither harmed nor will harm anyone. This odd-looking creature is a complete innocent.
The first question is this: would it be morally wrong of you to intentionally cause pain or suffering to this object? I submit that we do and should answer this question affirmatively. We believe that any pain or suffering brought to this creature would be unwarranted, pointless, unjustified, or as I will typically characterize it, gratuitous. Therefore, reflection on this narrative elicits the moral principle that it is wrong to intentionally inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on an innocent creature. The second question is this: would it be morally wrong of you to intentionally (knowingly and purposefully) allow this innocent creature to suffer gratuitous harm? Again, the answer seems clearly yes. Suppose that you happened on a stranger who intended to bring harm to this alien for no reason. Assume further that you could, with minimal effort and personal risk, deter the stranger from accomplishing his plan. Surely these conditions make it obvious (or as obvious as ethics allows) that it would be wrong of you to allow the alien to suffer. Although I will not press the point, since it is tangential to my concerns, I submit that we also have an obligation to prevent gratuitous suffering even if no persons were involved in bringing about the suffering. If we notice that this creature is traversing a course that will cause it (gratuitous) harm, we have an obligation to notify it. For example, we ought to make the creature aware that if it continues walking in its current direction, it will presently fall off a cliff. In all these cases it would surely be wrong to stand by and not perform the minimal acts necessary to allow the creature to circumvent pain and suffering.
The basic idea is that the world would be a better place if it contained less gratuitous harm and that we all have an obligation to try to make the world better by doing what we reasonably can to reduce such harm. Most directly we can minimize gratuitous suffering by not inflicting it. This, of course, is quite easy. It takes neither great effort nor ingenuity not to shoot a deer or push an electric prod into a hog's anus. In all but the most bizarre circumstances, we have control over our actions, especially those that would directly produce gratuitous harm. To fulfill this obligation, we need only do nothing. We also have moral obligations to prevent innocents from enduring gratuitous suffering. Within reasonable, albeit vague limits, we ought not allow innocents to suffer. While freeing an innocent creature from an ominous environment may be comparatively easy, attempting to stop another from gratuitously harming it may be difficult and dangerous. All else being equal, the obligations to prevent harmful behavior gain stringency as the means to stop the gratuitous harm become easier and less risky. We do not believe that someone violates a duty by failing to prevent a relatively minor harm if the intervention requires placing the agent's life in serious peril.
The principle that most simply, directly, and plausibly accounts for these intuitive moral judgments is the PGS. Indeed, the moral assessments that we share regarding the innocent alien are embodied in the PGS. Alternatively put, the best candidate for a moral principle that implicitly informs our moral judgments is the PGS. At the end of the day, there is no more potent reason for accepting any moral prescription.
Some may object to the viability of thought experiments in general, and this one specifically, by protesting that they subtly beg the question. In the case at hand, the charge would be that only those who already accept the PGS will consider the alien scenario to imply it. That is, only someone who antecedently believes that it is wrong to intentionally inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on an innocent individual will view the proposed treatment of the alien as morally wrong. The thought experiment is alleged to be impotent to convert skeptics; it is an exercise in preaching to the choir.
This objection would be devastating if it were correct, for a significant number of philosophical disputes rely on the viability of thought experiments structurally similar to the one I propose. From the problem of reconciling free will with a deterministic universe, to the puzzle of giving an adequate account of knowledge, to the conundrum of providing a satisfying functionalist account of the nature of the mind, philosophers have perennially relied on imaginary scenarios either to bolster their cause or to attack the positions of others. Fortunately, the objection is meretricious. Recall that we use thought experiments primarily to elicit or unearth principles. In particular, my thought experiment is intended to elicit the principle that best explains why you agree (and you do, don't you?) that in the circumstances adumbrated, it would be morally wrong to harm the alien or allow it to be harmed when this requires minimal effort and risk. That is, I ask you to use your moral intuitions (and not some moral theory or moral precept) to make a moral judgment and then to seek the moral principle that best explains this judgment. The PGS is the obvious choice. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to conceive of any other plausible candidate.
Thus, there is no prior appeal to the PGS or, for that matter, to any other moral principle. In fact, I urge readers to abandon any principle or theory they may have prior to making a moral assessment in the alien case. This avoids any question begging or subtle cheating. In fact, the claim that only those who accept the PGS will agree that it is morally wrong to harm the innocent actually confirms the efficacy of the thought experiment, for this effectively means that PGS is the best explanation available for the judgment. As long as one does not use the PGS to elicit the judgment-and one cannot, if moral intuition is the means employed-the cogency of the imaginary excursion remains untainted.
Although lacking the purity of the thought experiment, the real-life tragedy of Kitty Genovese exemplifies the PGS. In 1964 a man mercilessly stabbed Genovese to death in the New York borough of Queens. Surely we all believe that what this man did was horribly wrong; he ought not to have caused an innocent woman great pain and suffering, let alone her death. Unbelievably, none of the apartment dwellers who viewed this spectacle took any action. While most would agree that these spectators had no obligation to intervene directly in the attack, they surely did have the duty to try to get help-say, by calling the police. Remarkably, even this minimum moral requirement went unsatisfied. These onlookers had an obligation to help Kitty Genovese; they were duty bound to do what they reasonably could do to prevent her gratuitous suffering. Because they flouted this duty-and thus violated the PGS's "allowance" clause-we justifiably think of them as having done something wrong.
Admittedly, countenancing obligations to prevent the gratuitous suffering of innocents muddies the PGS's pristine clarity. We now need to determine what count as "reasonable" obligations to impose on persons in any particular situation. Nevertheless, these nuances have little effect on animal issues: could any but the most self-serving believe that it is unreasonable to forgo some gustatory pleasure so that the factory farming of animals can be terminated? Indeed, a relevant disanalogy between the passive residents and meat-eaters disadvantages the latter. Although most of us are not factory farmers and so are not directly inflicting pain and suffering on animals, our consumption of flesh products means that we do not just allow great harm to happen but actively contribute to the existence of the harmful institution. Repugnant as the passivity of the onlookers was, their inaction did not cause Genovese's assailant to act as he did, but the relationship between flesh consumer and flesh producer is more intimate than that between onlooker and assailant. Our not boycotting meat products is the very lifeblood of the industry. If the inactive viewers had intervened actively, the practice of murder would probably not have ended. If we stop consuming cows, hogs, and chickens, however, the practice of factory farming will terminate. If we were not to allow the gratuitous pain and suffering inherent in factory farming, we would obviate the institution. Having no patrons, the practice would be economically pointless. We can do so much by doing so little.
One may have qualms regarding the relevance of the PGS to the Genovese case. Perhaps the assailant's act was immoral not because it subjected Genovese to great pain and suffering but because it violated her rights. Since the PGS makes no reference to rights, it provides little if any principled explanation of what makes the killer's attack morally wrong.
Although the PGS does not explicitly invoke rights, there is no real problem in couching the principle in these terms. As I use the terms, if it is morally wrong to act a certain way toward a person, then that person has a right not to be acted on in that particular manner. (I briefly discuss other stylistic variants of the PGS later in this chapter.) Thus, if it is morally wrong to intentionally inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on an innocent, then that innocent has a right not to have pain and suffering inflicted on it. I take this as nothing more than exemplifying ordinary usage.
Perhaps the objection is not that the PGS cannot be understood in terms of rights but rather that the wrong done to Genovese was not merely (or even most significantly) the violation of her right not to be gratuitously harmed. Perhaps the suggestion is that the assailant violated other rights as well. For example, the attacker surely prevented Genovese from reaching her door, and so it might be argued that part of the immorality of the assailant derived from his interference with her "right of mobility."
I am willing, for the sake of discussion, to grant that Genovese had a right to move where she desired and that the assailant violated this right. But surely his interference with this right is not the source of our moral outrage. To see this, subtract the stabbings, the pain, and the suffering that Genovese endured. I suspect that your repulsion and horror have diminished enormously. Conversely, imagine-difficult as this is-that her mobility had not been affected despite the stabbings. Now I suspect that your outrage has not subsided at all. Clearly the horrible gratuitous pain and suffering that Genovese experienced is the source of our moral condemnation.
I am also willing to grant that Genovese had a "right to life," and I agree that we would be morally outraged if the assailant had "merely" killed Genovese without causing her great pain and suffering. Still, most of us believe that the real case is worse than this hypothetical one-that the assailant acted morally worse by causing her to suffer before she died. Torturing an innocent to death is more morally repellent than painlessly ending her life. Thus the Genovese case does support the PGS.
Excerpted from Without a Tear by MARK H. BERNSTEIN Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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