Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All the heavy metal in the world

There seems to be something I'm not getting that everyone else gets. Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy (which looks like a good blog) writes:
McMahan’s piece is rich and challenging, raising a lot of important issues. He questions, for example, whether ‘species’ is a morally relevant category: “The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.” With this, I agree; we talk about animal species as a convenient way of carving up nature and organizing our biological knowledge, but it doesn’t seem terribly important to morality. (This isn’t to deny anything about human exceptionalism; I would think that if anything makes humans special morally, it’s not something that depends essentially on our species membership. That is, you can still think humans have intrinsic dignity even if you don’t think that that dignity depends on our being a member of Homo sapiens.)
Why doesn't species, kind, or type count for morality? The idea seems to be that members of the species homo sapiens might have special dignity, but they have this because of their individual properties, not because they are members of that species. Is that it? But then it becomes hard to argue for human rights rather than, say, the rights of rational beings. And what if all the heavy metal in the world disappeared, or all the late medieval art? Wouldn't that be a shame, and not only because this song and that song and this painting had gone? Wouldn't the loss of the kinds be a bad thing? If the Welsh language disappears, is that not a shame just because the line between Welsh and,say, Cornish is blurry or somewhat arbitrary? Some French people look French. Is it irrational to think it would be a shame if that kind of face disappeared? For that matter, is the identity of an individual (a complete set of rabbit parts, for instance) not just as arbitrary as the identity of a species? I don't get it.


  1. Thanks for your discussion of this part of my post- I appreciate your careful commentary! To put the point a little more clearly, I agree with you that kinds may be relevant to morality; I was concerned with arguing, in the post, that specifically biological kinds are probably not morally relevant. I admit that this wasn't made particularly clear, and I'm glad that you encouraged me to clarify this. Please feel free to send me an email or comment further on the blog if you want to discuss this further. Cheers!

  2. Thanks, Matt. I think you were clear that it was biological kinds that you had in mind. My point was that if biological kinds are not morally relevant because they are a) artificial categories and b) fuzzy at the edges, then any artificial category with fuzzy edges ought not to be morally relevant either. But that seems implausible to me. Oh well. I know there is a whole literature on this, so I should probably read that. Perhaps people who value McMahan's thoughts on this are seeing them from a perspective that is informed by that literature and therefore seeing more in them than I do. Or perhaps they are simply glad that he has brought the issue to public awareness.

  3. That's helpful, thanks. A good thought experiment might be something like this: suppose scientists tell us that they were wrong all along, and that we're really members of Homo schmapiens. Could that make any difference for morality?

    I'm not too up on the literature myself, but I do find this question interesting.

  4. Thanks. I'm not sure what to make of the thought experiment, because I don't know what it would mean, except that the name of our species was changing. If it turned out that the thing I was about to kill and eat was in fact a member of some rare species then I think this would make a difference to the morality of my killing and eating it. Likewise, if the 'rare' eggs I have been guarding turn out to belong to a bird of some common species, then it would be much more reasonable of me to walk away and leave them unprotected. It is not only a question of rareness, either. I would do more to save a dog than to save a worm. I would also treat a human being with no greater mental ability than a worm with much more respect than I would a worm.

    What if it turned out that some "human beings" were actually from another planet, or evolved separately from the rest of us? This probably wouldn't make a difference, but the details might matter. If the others are body-snatchers intent on enslaving us, for instance, then that is morally significant.

    It seems to me that it does not matter what we call a kind of things, but it does matter what kind of things a thing belongs to (is it a tiger?, a heavy metal song?, etc.). Even a lousy specimen might be worth saving if it is the last of its kind. Not all kinds (i.e. all possible sets of things) have value, of course. But I think some do.