Monday, May 14, 2012

Mailbag Monday: Animal Rights and Some Logical Positivism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

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Sheraz writes,

Typically, in discussions about animal rights the following exchange will take place:
Alex: we should care about animals because they have x capacities
Betty: but some humans do not have these capacities
Betty: does this mean, you think that it is ok to removing rights from disabled humans?
My question is, what is the best way for Alex to respond? 

Well Sheraz, the bad news is that it might be that, uh, your friend "Alex," is completely fucked. Maybe x capacities, whatever they are, are stupid capacities. Maybe Alex should have chosen something different like "capacity to form even minimal social ties", which probably includes almost everyone. But really, why the fuck is Alex arguing that we should care about animals because of their capacities? That might not work for precisely the reason Betty says. Maybe he should have gone with "If you're a dick to animals then pretty soon you'll start turning on babies and shit, and suddenly you're just an asshole in general," which is a (very) rough paraphrase of Kant's argument. Bros have offered lots of different arguments to respect animal rights - not all of them have to do with capacities.

Or maybe Alex can just bite the bullet. "...Yes. I totally do think it's okay to take rights away from certain disabled humans." what an asshole, amirite?? Well, hold on. How disabled? Depends on the capacity he's talking about. If Alex is going with something like conscious thought then a very small subset of persons lack that capacity, and maybe Alex doesn't think they have rights. On the other hand, if Alex is going with something like, I dunno, thinking abstractly, then he might rule out some really great people and also all babies and I feel like you're definitely not asking me if babies have rights so there's that. Alex should be careful about what bullet he bites, I feel like he's not trying to get the mentally handicapped abused just to save cows.



Hokay, so now that I've given you two complete non-answers, what could you, uh, I mean, your "friend" Alex actually respond with? If Alex is absolutely hell-bent on sticking to his "capacities" guns, and he doesn't want to bite aaaaaany bullets (Is Alex a wuss? Alex kinda sounds like a wuss.) then he might say something like, "No, we shouldn't take rights away from disabled humans. Disabled humans are still, you know, humans, and humans in general have those capacities so we should care about them. It's about the type, not the token. We should care about horses because they can form social bonds or whatever, but just because there's this one socially retarded horse that no one likes doesn't mean we should be all like, 'THAT ONE! Turn that lonely one into glue!' Same thing with people."

Also, Alex might just say, "WOOOOAAAAAH. Rights? Who said anything about rights? We should care about things that feel pain. We should also care about humans because they have natural rights. But, we can still care about things without rights, too."

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Sam writes via Facebook:

Could you give a treatment of Logical Positivism? I know that it's not in favor right now, but I'm trying to figure out what everyone saw in it in the 19th century, and all I'm getting is smart-ass wisecracks


So obviously I'm coming to you for not-smart-ass-wisecracks.


I may have just uncovered a flaw in this plan. 
Well, played Sam. Well played. I like your style, so I'm going to do what I can to help you out here.

Logical positivism is, briefly, the belief that the only claims that are even meaningful are the ones that can be verified in the world. So it isn't like metaphysics is just all false, it's literally just gibberish. Asking 'is there a soul?' is like asking 'beeple borp McGee pants?'

I mean, looking back at logical positivism in a historical context, it makes plenty of sense. Right around the 1910s, right before logical positivism exploded onto the scene, we were doing SCIENCE and lots of it. Physics was coming together in some really sweet ways, including the publication of General Relativity in 1916, so we were really good at that. A lot of people saw the leaps and bounds physics had made and thought, "well, we can't be far now, huh?" That was before we'd really done any quantum and everyone was like, "The atom? Well, fuck, how hard could that be?" Plus, Bertrand Russell had just published the Principia Mathematica and Gödel hadn't done the Incompleteness Theorems yet, so logic was looking preeeeetty sweet, too.

Ethics and aesthetics have some really annoying indeterminacy because there's nothing that we can see to ground them - there isn't like a test we can do to see like, "mmhmm. mmhmm. Well, the data says 'murder is bad' just like we thought!" (I'm looking at you ex-phi) and I mean, even now I get emails all the time like "look at all the shit science already tells us, you think it can't tell us the rest of the things too?" which is wrong but those things are, at least in some sense, more clearly grounded. Now imagine even before we knew how fucking weird physics really is and also that logic isn't complete, and you can see why some bros were like, "you know, I'm pretty sure that we can solve all this, you guys. Give us like, ten years." The motivation is admirable - simplify and clarify what questions even make sense; get rid of handwavy bullshit. It just went far, way too far. We eventually realized that handwavy bullshit is actually an integral part of the human experience! Hooray!

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Jono writes,


What was Wittgenstein's deal with the picture theory of meaning? How does understanding propositions/thoughts as pictures help?

Well Brono, the picture theory of meaning is related to logical positivism, which I just explained above, so go back and read that. When you speak, you're Bob Ross'n it up, identifying propositions. And a proposition paints a picture, and to decide if that proposition is true or not, you check to see if they picture matches the world. So, when I say, "I am super-drunk right now," to decide if that's true, you should picture a scene in which I am , in fact, hammered. Then, find me, and compare that picture with the world. If you hold up the picture, and then look at me and they match, if you're like, "Wow, it's an uncanny resemblance, right down to the slumped in over the balcony thing he's got going on!" TRUE! If you're like, "That's not right; he's not even all sweaty like he is in the painting!" then FALSE! Why pictures? Because of logical positivism's relationship with empiricism - it isn't enough to describe a thing. You can't paint a picture of, like, something being morally wrong. And if you can't see it, you can't say it.

Of course, as Wittgenstein would later say, "Yeah, fuck that."

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For more on animal rights in general, check out the SEP's pretty sweet article.


Wittgenstein lays out the picture theory of meaning in his groundbreaking Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and he rejected it in his even more groundbreaking Philosophical Investigations.


For more on the history of logical positivism, look into the Vienna Circle, the group of philosophers who did the most work on getting that thing off the ground.


To send your question to the Monday Mailbag, email philosophybro@gmail.com and put "Monday Mailbag" in the title!

13 comments:

  1. Hmm... I preferred MM as a comprehensive description of one or two topics, but I suppose that would be kind of redundant with your new summary style. Regardless, nicely done, Kurt Brodel.

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    1. Yeah, the new thing will often be exactly like what MM used to be. These were just piling up, man.

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  2. If we've entered the discussion under the supposition that some creatures enjoy some rights (perhaps a right to life, or a right to protection from torture or something), and now we want to why it is that humans enjoy those rights, but not some animals, then you don't really offer a useful response.

    With regard to the type-token distinction, I'm not sure how useful that is either. Why not consider the type horses-that-aren't-retarded? I'm not suggesting that retardation is a good disqualification for possession of rights, but I don't see why narrowing our view from "humans" to "humans with X" is violating the type-token distinction relevantly. It's not that THIS human, this particular one, is in question. It's that humans of THAT type, namely...the relevant type like "lacking consciousness" or "self-consciousness" or "ability to plan" or "ability to suffer" etc are in question.

    For what it's worth, I think that the potential possession criteria for personhood (I'll loosely stipulate that personhood is sufficient for rights) is pretty solid.

    I think we need more from Alex and Betty. Which animals does she want to protect, and from what harms? Which humans are allegedly at stake, and which X is being proposed as the grounds for their protection? As you pointed out, without knowing more than we do, there are some general objections:

    1. Don't care about those animals
    2. Don't care about those harms
    3. Don't care about those people
    4. Those aren't genuine grounds

    If we're not limiting our discussion to rights, or working under the assumption that there are any such things, then I guess there's a lot more to say, but I'm not fan of the rule consequentialist kind of talk you attribute to Kant (although he's probably right that the "fuck animals" rule is a recipe for douchery)

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    1. Sorry, this post had a typo :s aaaaaand I couldn't post by selecting my facebook profile, so I was only left the anonymous option. Love the site, it's pretty awesome.

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  3. If we've entered the discussion under the supposition that some creatures enjoy some rights (perhaps a right to life, or a right to protection from torture or something), and now we want to know why it is that humans enjoy those rights, but not some animals, then you don't really offer a useful response.

    With regard to the type-token distinction, I'm not sure how useful that is either. Why not consider the type horses-that-aren't-retarded? I'm not suggesting that retardation is a good disqualification for possession of rights, but I don't see why narrowing our view from "humans" to "humans with X" is violating the type-token distinction relevantly. It's not that THIS human, this particular one, is in question. It's that humans of THAT type, namely...the relevant type like "lacking consciousness" or "self-consciousness" or "ability to plan" or "ability to suffer" etc are in question.

    For what it's worth, I think that the potential possession criteria for personhood (I'll loosely stipulate that personhood is sufficient for rights) is pretty solid.

    I think we need more from Alex and Betty. Which animals does she want to protect, and from what harms? Which humans are allegedly at stake, and which X is being proposed as the grounds for their protection? As you pointed out, without knowing more than we do, there are some general objections:

    1. Don't care about those animals
    2. Don't care about those harms
    3. Don't care about those people
    4. Those aren't genuine grounds

    If we're not limiting our discussion to rights, or working under the assumption that there are any such things, then I guess there's a lot more to say, but I'm not fan of the rule consequentialist kind of talk you attribute to Kant (although he's probably right that the "fuck animals" rule is a recipe for douchery)

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  4. Of course, Logical Positivism has a hard time justifying why someone should follow Logical Positivism, which is why we don't follow it anymore. (Also, postmodern philosophies are a bit more interesting when they talk about meaning imo).

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  5. Regarding animal rights, reading some Descola and Viveiros de Castro is really interesting. Perspectivism and all that =D

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  6. I think most people in Alex's case are actually saying

    'since we assume that all human beings have rights for various complicated and probably totally unfounded reasons, we should also include animals in our rights discussions because they too share some important capacities that we use to defend human rights.'

    maybe.

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    1. Yes!

      Also, why doesn't Alex respond with, "If you assume it'd be ridiculous for discounting certain humans from having rights because of their lack of certain 'capacities', why not also assume it'd be ridiculous to discount all animals from having rights?"

      Like, if you're so ready to defend the rights of human vegetables, Betty, why not also defend cool octopi who use tools or really cute baby chicks?

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  7. Another great post bro !
    I was especially delighted that you didn't get all "Peter Singer" on our asses about the animal rights debacle as i so unjustly feared :)

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  8. (first order) logic is complete, see Godel's completeness theorems. First-order consistent recursively axiomatized arithmetic is incomplete.

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  9. The picture theory of meaning doesn't have a whole lot to do with logical positivism bro, although some positivists did accept it after Wittgenstein talked about it (Carnap). The positivists liked Wittgenstein's stuff on how ethics was nonsense, how logic and analytic propositions were nonsense, and how meaningful propositions can be construed as truth-functions of elementary propositions, but the picture theory itself didn't have much to do with that. True, a bro can read the Tractatus and conclude some of those things if he believes the truth of the picture theory, but the picture theory itself is probably more a side effect of the views above rather than a premise that helps a bro conclude the above.

    Also, to be picky bro, your explanation of the picture theory makes it sound like any other correspondence theory of meaning. I mean, that's what it seems like when you read it first, but it's actually not as simple as it seems, mainly because the way it works doesn't really work like how you would think a picture would work. The point of the picture theory is that a picture, a thought, and a proposition say something because there are elements in the picture that pick out possible elements in the world, and the way the elements are arranged says that the world is arranged that way. So, example. Take a picture with two elements: a bro, and a keg. The bro is an element in the picture which picks out a possible element in the world: some possible bro from Delta Ep. The keg is an element in the picture which picks out some possible element in the world: some possible cold keg of Natty. Now, the picture involves the elements in a relationship with each other. Let's say the bro in the picture is standing on the keg in the picture. This says that "The bro is standing on the keg." This picture is true if there is a real life bro from Delta Ep like the one in the picture and a real life cold keg of Natty like the one in the picture, and false if not. This is supposed to be how propositions work, except obviously there are no drawn pictures of things in words, so the point is that propositions works roughly the same way: the elements of a propositions pick out things in the world, and the way the elements are arranged say that the world is arranged some way, and the proposition is true if there are those things arranged in that way in the actual world.

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