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pathways (letters)

9 January 1998

Dear Barry,

I am working at home today, while the builders replace the dormer window in June's studio, which was blown out in a storm. The constant banging added to the traffic noise is no worse than the clatter and chatter of the University computer rooms!

I'll deal with unit 13 first, then unit 14. I still owe you some essay questions: I'll put those in the post soon.


246-252. behaviour towards animals Your example of the row of ox tongues reminded me of a science fiction story I read a long time ago! In the story, I seem to recall, scientists had found a way to grow articifial 'chickens' that lacked all the visible characteristics of chickens such as heads, wings etc. Now the obvious reaction is that where we are not dealing with an example of animal life, where meat is being grown just as one might grow a vegetable, then any prohibitions on the use of animals wouldn't apply. ('What is an animal?' is a good philosophical question. John Wyndmam's Triffids, as active, sentient beings would surely count as animals irrespective of their origin.) However, there is a complication. It seems the same argument would go through if one could grow parts of humans, say, a row of 'baby' arms or legs — supposing that these were discovered to be a great delicacy fried or grilled...

253-256. rights and obligations The point about rights comes across most clearly when one looks at accounts of moral obligation — such as Ayn Rand's 'objectivism', or, on a more sophisticated level the political theories of Robert Nozick (cf. his Anarchy, State and Utopia) where a sharp distinction is drawn between voluntary acts of 'charity', and the duties or prohibitions arising from consideration of a person's natural rights (e.g. prohibitions against theft, or murder). — I can't accept your simplistic formula, 'The right of a human being to be treated as a human being, the right of an animal to be treated as an animal.' Is to be 'treated as an animal' the same for all species or different? Who decides? Our sense of what it is to be 'treated as a human being' is no use as a guide. Supposing we did have a clear, unambiguous account of the latter it would still not tell us how to construct a parallel account for animals, or what considerations one ought to appeal to.

257-260. awareness The point I am making about the slippery slope argument is precisely in agreement with what you say about certain cases between self-defence and assault being undecidable. The point here is that we can define, in principle, what the difference is between self-defence and assault: it is only that the application of this definition is sometimes blurred. In the case of the continuum in the quality of consciousness or awareness between the ape-like creature and a human being this is apparently not the case. The problem is one of definition itself and not simply that of applying the definition. When the question is shifted, however, from consciousness or awareness to the capacity for dialogue, a clear definition is forthcoming. (Again, there will be indeterminate cases where there will be difficulty seeing whether the definition applies, but as we have already seen this is not a fatal objection.)

261-264. language Your example of the farmer's dog is a good example to think about.

265. virtue Should a person of a 'caring nature' care about things? If a thing is someone else's property, then obviously my obligations towards that person come into play. But what about my own property? If a thing is mine — my Ford Capri, my laptop computer, my guitar — I can do what I like with it. To kick in the door or smash the screen or break the neck because the thing has broken down or is not working properly may indicate an intemperate disposition — the lack of a certain human 'virtue' — but it would hardly seem to qualify as a moral issue. If anything, this example makes me question the solution to the animals issue suggested here. What is the moral difference between an animal and a mere thing?


The key contrast that I wanted to highlight in this unit was that between Mill's vision of a 'neutral ground' where regardless of their personal interests or commitments human beings can engage in rational discourse about the 'best' conequences of any given action or policy in terms of human happiness or well being, and the opposing pluralistic view arising from an ethics of dialogue. In an ethics of dialogue, there is no neutral ground. The only obligation is to pursue dialogue as best we can. The commitment to dialogue is highlighted by the problem of 'the outsider'. The ethics of dialogue fully acknowledges the risk that needs to be taken in order to open up dialogue with those who appear to us as outsiders. Parallel with this risk, is the necessary caution that needs to be exercised when dealing with persons who hold a radically different view from our own. Thus, it is not enough that, to our eyes, an action (say, the use of a certain word) appears completely 'innocent': for how the action appears to us, from our point of view, is not the only consideration.

'Further thoughts' Say, my neighbour is extremely ugly. It causes me something near physical pain every time I see him. Mill would argue that, knowing this, my neighbour still is under no obligation to wait for me to leave the house before going out for a walk himself. If this means that I have to cower indoors in order to avoid meeting him, then the restriction on my freedom is in principle no different from the restriction arising from the fact that a violent rainstorm is taking place. It is simply not a moral question. Mill's belief that individual liberty should be 'unrestricted' is in no way undermined by recognising this kind of case.

On the question of 'legitimate interest', remember that the principle of liberty is not meant to be the sole moral principle. You are quite right that it is not Mill's principle of liberty that tells me that I must take appropriate action if I see someone's car being stolen.

An issue is 'moral' insofar as it arises from the need to take another person's interests into consideration. The fact that someone cares about something sufficiently strongly is sufficient to make it a moral issue for me, even if, so far as I am concerned, their caring appears to have no 'moral' ground or justification. That is not to say that I am necessarily bound to respect their views. It is a matter for negotiation.

— As a last comment, it is perhaps worth noting that Mill's view of liberty, when his book was first published, was seen as extremely radical and indeed raised furious protests. In a way, I am attempting to defend some aspects of the 'traditionalist' line against Mill, while in another way I am seeking to show that Mill was not radical enough.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner