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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 with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

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 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.”


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!


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 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." 


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 and put "Monday Mailbag” in the title!

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