Monday, February 15, 2010

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

By Robert Nozick

In this assigned section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick proposes the idea of side-constraints, arguing that adding a non-aggression side constraint supports the inviolability of individuals. He also spends considerable time discussing how the interests of animals might be taken into account, arguing that animals’ lives do have value. He believes that in utilitarian theories, the benefits or harm to both animals and humans should be taken into account, and proposes a possible theory of ‘utilitarianism for animals and Kantianism for humans.’

He argues that utilitarianism doesn’t properly take into account the importance of not violating people’s rights. This could be fixed by either transforming utilitarianism into a theory focusing on rights as an end-state, i.e. minimize violations of rights rather than maximizing happiness. Another method would be to add a side constraint to the general utilitarian method. The side constraint helps to take account of the idea that individuals are inviolable – they should not be used as a means. One argument against this idea is that individuals may choose to undergo some pain to prevent human harm (such as visiting the dentist to avoid future cavities), and that this concept could be applied to the society. However, Nozick argues that a social entity cannot undergo sacrifice – society is made up of individuals with separate lives, and it is only possible for individual people to make sacrifices. Those individuals would not get a benefit outweighing their sacrifice, and no one can force the sacrifice on them. This situation may be the basis of a libertarian constraint that prohibits aggression against each other.

The agreement of non-aggression against one another within a community raises the issue of how animals may fit in. Are there limits to what we can do to animals. Nozick provides the following scenario: If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there a reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

Nozick feels that most people would not think you should snap your fingers in this case. However, he feels that some may argue that the reason you shouldn’t snap your fingers is because such an act would ‘brutalize’ the person snapping, and make them more likely to take the lives of humans. However, Nozick argues that is animals are just objects, then you could make the same argument to say that someone who really likes hitting baseballs is dangerous, because he might start hitting people with the bat.

If there is some agreement that animals do count for something, the question is how much they count. If people don’t need to eat animals for health reasons, then is it morally legitimate to kill animals just for the marginal pleasure we get from eating meat? In another baseball example, he suggests that if you really like to swing your bat, but there is a cow in the way of your only swinging space, is it legitimate to value the marginal pleasure you’ll get from swinging (rather than doing your second favorite activity, whatever that is) higher than the damage that will be inflicted on the cow? How can we quanitify the amount of marginal pleasure for humans that outweighs the value of an animal.

One possible method for valuing humans and animals is to use utilitarianism for animals, and Kantianism for people. This would mean that we maximize the total happiness of all living things, but that human beings may not be sacrificed for the benefit of others, and animals may be used or sacrificed for the benefit of other people or animals, if the benefits are greater than the loss inflicted. He argues that animals’ happiness could be factored into utilitarian decisions in the same way human decisions are, even if animals’ happiness was ranked lower. Nozick further questions how much an animal’s experience should be respected, while it is alive. For example, with humans, we might ask whether it is right to genetically engineer natural slaves that will be content with their lives. Would it be ok if these natural slaves were animals? (And hasn’t this already been done with the domestication of animals?) Nozick uses the concept of an ‘experience machine’ to which you could plug in to simulate having experiences, to show that humans value something beyond just their internal feelings about experiences.

If we are willing to have different rules for the treatment of humans and animals, Nozick asks how we might extend this hierarchy. He suggests that an elitist hierarchical view would distinguish three moral statuses:
Status 1: The being may not be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, for any other organism’s sake.
Status 2: The being may be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, but only for the sake of beings higher on the scale, but not for the sake of beings at the same level.
Status 3: The being may be sacrificed, harmed, and so on, for the sake of other beings at the same or higher levels on the scale.

You might assume that animals would be level 3, and humans level 1. But Nozick asks, could beings from another galaxy stand to us as it is usually thought we do to animals, and if so, would they be justified in treating us as means a la utilitarianism? Is it possible for humans to be at level 2, with advanced beings (aliens, god) at level 1?

What about persons distinguishes them from animals, so that stringent constraints apply to how persons may be treated, yet not to how animals may be treated? Some ideas are that humans are rational, possessing free will, being a moral agent capable of guiding behavior by moral principles, capable of engaging in mutual limitation of conduct, and having a soul. Still, it isn’t clear why these factors affect how we should be treated. It may be that these issues are related to the ‘meaning of life’ and the ability to think and plan ahead so as to have meaning in our lives.

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