Monday, September 20, 2010

The argument from tigers

[UPDATE: This isn't a defense of theism or religion. If that's what you're looking for, you've got the wrong argument from tigers. Feel free to look around while you're here though. For more on my views on religion, click on the "religion" label to the right. In brief, I'm an atheist but not an evangelical one.

UPDATE: This isn't an argument for vegetarianism either. Roughly speaking, it's an argument for tigers. And it's an argument from tigers. Basically: tigers, therefore tigers, or: tigers are awesome, therefore it is good that there should be tigers. This probably sounds silly, but it's a response to an argument to the effect that it might be good if tigers did not exist. My response is that this is absurd, and evidently so to anyone with a proper understanding of what tigers are. For more, read on below.]

Jeff McMahan has an article in which he argues "that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species." Spiros calls it "terrific and provocative." It is not terrific, and what it provokes in me is a kind of grinding despair. It would be all too easy to have an animated, "Ah, but that's precisely where you're wrong!" kind of discussion of this piece. It would be impossible to have what I would consider a serious discussion of it, except as pathological. Stephen Mulhall might offer a very insightful analysis of just what is wrong with this kind of thinking (in fact I think he has already addressed McMahan's work in The Wounded Animal), but I don't see how it could be taken seriously as a piece of thinking. This (i.e. what I have just written) is not an argument, of course, but I'm not sure how to argue with something like this.

Early analytic philosophy was connected with modernism. I wonder whether it has degenerated into a form of post-modernism, something essentially playful (see the jokey end of McMahan's essay: "I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment"), essentially unserious.


  1. hard to take this as anything other than insane or disingenuous when most of the reasoning would be moot until the antecedent of his conditional, 'without ecological upheaval', is satisfied—and it's not clear why we would ever have reason to think it was.

    notice that, as is common practice in this sort of venue, he doesn't make an appearance in the comments section.

  2. I'm not a fan of Spiros' disdain for "public philosophy" (though I also find that the vast majority of the comments on NYT fill me with "a kind of grinding despair" than the essays (not just McMahan's)). I tend to share much of your reaction to M's argument, at least in that I'm not inclined to draft a careful counterargument. I actually think, given the venue, that M does a fine enough job anticipating various sorts of objections, and making clear that he's not advocating any particular action (indeed, he is quite right to point out the ecological risks involved with any such attempt at controlled extinction), but I suppose that's part of what fills you with the despair? For his conclusion is simply that we have reason to desire X, but given the current (and probably the indefinitely continued) state of things, there's not anything in particular we should clearly be doing to bring about X. The issues about minimizing suffering and whether species can be attributed a special kind of value are not unimportant philosophical issues in their own right, and so one might charitably read McMahon as suggesting that here's a surprising ("heretical") conclusion that you get as a result of a particular conjunction of views about those other matters. I agree that the "jokey" end is counterproductive, but perhaps the deeper problem--which is connected to your question about what it could be to take this seriously--is that the desire for which he wants to argue doesn't seem to be one we could take seriously in the absence of some actual possibility of realizing it. At a very different, and in certain ways unfair (ad hominem) level, I sort of have the same response to this as I did much of Foer's Eating Animals: city boy.

  3. [I just lost my first draft of a long comment, so I'm re-writing and might cut a few corners. Apologies if the result is obscure.]

    Thanks, j. and Matthew.

    I find it hard to read McMahan's piece, so I might have missed something good in it, because it seems to stem from a troublingly alien intelligence. Has he such a strong sense of the nice that he has no appreciation of the sublime? No tigers, no dogs, no sharks? This is "A Modest Proposal" territory, it seems to me. In fact, the most charitable reading of it would be as satire: we are destroying the planet so much that we need to start thinking about which species to keep and which to let die out. Let's start with the tigers. Etc. That would be a nice argument for protecting the environment and avoiding the "relentless efforts to increase individual wealth and power" that "are already causing massive, precipitate changes in the natural world." But the rest of the piece suggests that McMahan is actually serious about wanting to phase out tigers in favor of other, possibly artificially-designed, species. This is too big a topic for a comment, so I'll address it in a post or two.

  4. maybe this is obvious to you, or maybe you haven't talked to the wrong people about vegetarianism/veganism in a while, but i think another reason to suspect swiftianism from the author is that his whole argument could stand as a 'response' to the kind of person who, when given singer-style arguments against eating meat, says, 'but animals kill each other, so why are we the only animals that aren't allowed to do it?'.

    given the way consequentialists are, it could also be a 'serious' response by way of doubling down. 'you're right, how awful that there are other animals that kill other animals! let's do something about THAT, too.' and it kind of seems to me to be the way it's meant (if it was meant as swiftian, it didn't work).

    i think the thing about women's fingernails ('vestigial claws') is just a bit of performed disingenuousness to allude to the fact that we're supposed to have risen above our bestial prehistoric past by rejecting the kinds of empty social customs with no basis in rationality that are exemplified by retrograde gender differences.


    heavy metal will never die.

  5. Nothing much is obvious to me with this. I think you pretty much nailed it with your "insane or disingenuous" line. The more I think about it, the more I think a kind of insanity is at work here, but then you get into ad hominem territory, so I should leave that alone. (Which is not to say that I will.)

    The fingernail 'joke' is another thing I know I should probably pass over, but the feeling that it is "a bit of performed disingenuousness" gives me the creeps. I also suspect that it might be rather telling, as I mentioned. Thinking of Carol Gilligan's work, it's possible to divide ways of thinking about ethics into two broad kinds, and to see one kind as being preferred by men, the other by women (so that roughly two thirds of men think in the 'masculine' way, two thirds of women in the 'feminine' way). McMahan's way of thinking is extremely masculine in this sense, so casual sexism might be regarded as a symptom of that.

    I agree that if the argument is meant to be Swiftian it doesn't work. But a failed argument is not as depressing as an inhuman one hailed as "terrific and provocative" and widely praised by others in what is, in some sense, my field. But I might be going way too far with this. As Matthew suggested, McMahan does a good job of anticipating the objections his view is likely to encounter. I don't think he understands or responds to these objections very well, but he does predict them correctly. He also raises lots of issues of interest to philosophers, and he has got me thinking, even if not in quite the way he intended. So for a blog post aimed at a non-specialist audience his piece could be regarded as a great success.

    Heavy metal will indeed never die. I was pleased to see the reference to Diamond Head in the comments on that youtube link. Brought back memories.

  6. "A great success": if it needs this kind of framing to get the public to think about the value of species and the importance of reducing our own impact on the world, then I don't know if it is a success. I'm almost positive it isn't satire. You should check out Jean Kazez's post on this on her blog In Living Color where she suggests that there's something like a lack of humility that colors M's essay, and she finds that problematic.

  7. I was trying to be less critical. I think the article is a great success in the sense that it has got a lot of people talking, and not all about how bad the argument is. I don't think it's successful as an argument, but there you go. And I don't think it's satire either--I just wish it were. Thanks for the pointer to Jean Kazez's blog--it looks like a good one. I agree with her about the humility issue too.

  8. i think socrates would conclude that such "heavy metal" music is a danger to the society, and thus ought to be prohibited.

  9. Probably. He might not like house music either though.

  10. eh, i am inclined to disagree. house in its 'purest form' is perceived by many as a character forming, uplifting experience. not everyone perceives house in this way, but most do. and none of this is really an argument; just some comments.

    one preliminary tension is that there are so many sub genres within house music itself, far more than other genres of music, such as rock & roll or jazz or whatever. so socrates may have approved of some sub genres within house and disapproved of others, or he may have disapproved of them all. i don't know. nonetheless, this may give some insight into the question:

    also worth noting is that the 'soul' plays an integral role in house, especially classic house and deep house. but i'm not sure if it's analogous to the way plato or socrates conceptualized the soul. i think that's an interesting question, though, and one i'd like to explore further.

    socrates could object on the grounds that the 'house music scene' (in a very general sense) has been closely related to the use of ecstasy. and this is true, house and ecstasy do have close ties, to some extent, especially from a historical standpoint. not everyone who loves house does ecstasy, though. nonetheless, i think this is a good argument. for now, i disagree with it for various reasons that would need further developing.

  11. Interesting, thanks. I think of Plato as only supporting music as propaganda, so maybe any genre would be OK with him, as long as it supported the Republic. If house music can do that, maybe he'd allow it. Whether some genres are better suited to propaganda purposes, or whether any are inherently subversive, could be an interesting question to explore. Even Plato would like "Voodoo Ray," though, because it's impossible not to. (This version doesn't really start till about 41 seconds in.)

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