Wednesday, October 17, 2012

At Oxford he fell in with vegetarians...

This is a good read on Peter Singer. The author, James Franklin, quotes Singer:
In thinking about this matter we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants. To think that the lives of infants are of special value because infants are small and cute is on a par with thinking that a baby seal, with its soft white fur coat and large round eyes, deserves greater protection than a whale [gorilla in the second edition], which lacks these attributes. If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants. 
It is odd to think that we could put aside emotionally moving aspects of an act when considering that act. Can we just turn off our emotions? (Obviously we can to some extent, but there are limits to what we can do, not to mention the limits to what we should do.) 'Cute' suggests appealing, which suggests some kind of value, surely. How can you recognize that something is cute and simultaneously disregard this cuteness? One way might be to recognize that the thing is considered to be cute by others, but that isn't what I'm talking about. Another objection relates to people. If two people are drowning and I cannot save both at once, surely I should not save the cute one first just because s/he is cute? That's right, I shouldn't. But that's because other things are so much more important, including how horrible it would be if life and death decisions were made on the basis of looks. How horrible for the ugly or plain, so small and helpless, so to speak, in their lack of cutenesss.  


  1. I have no comment on the infant remark, but the cuteness issue makes me think of a talk Hal Herzog (author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat gave last week at EKU. He suggests that our responsiveness to cute animals has to do with our responsiveness to "baby traits" (in humans)--large eyes are predictive of how much money people say they would be willing to give to protect an animal described as endangered. People would give very little (so they say) to save the Giant Chinese Salamander in contrast with "cuter" animals, and he compares this to the distress people feel about the use of (baby) white seals for fur, though these animals aren't at all endangered. (This of course misses the point that clubbing baby seals in order to harvest their fur still seems awful...)

  2. Thanks. On the one hand it would be terrible (or at best misguided or sentimental) to favor the large-eyed over the small-eyed. On the other hand, I don't think we can or should dismiss completely concerns of this general kind. We should not, for instance, do what is awful or horrible, and that kind of judgment strikes me as being in the same ballpark as judgments about cuteness. If only because I think Singer rejects them both.