Tuesday, June 04, 2013

On the morality of kitten torture, part 1

I was going to title this post "Why I am not a humanist" but I thought the kitten-torture angle had more panache.  I've also been looking at my traffic stats lately, and it seems that sensational titles are very effective.  This post has been getting a huge amount of traffic lately.  One of these days I'm going to write a series of completely bogus posts whose titles are all of the form "The shocking truth about X" and see what happens.

But back to kitten torture.  My recent encounter with Richard Dawkins has led to a lot of discussions with members of the secular community about religion, community, morals, and nomenclature.  I believe that I am entitled to be fully franchised as a human being despite the fact that I don't believe in the existence (in the narrow sense) of the supernatural.  One of the things I believe I'm entitled to is a noun.  And not just any old noun, but one that adequately captures my core beliefs.  Religious people have these: "Christian", "Muslim", "Episcopalian." Why shouldn't I?

The obvious noun for me to adopt would be "atheist".  But I don't like to self-identify as an atheist despite the fact that I am one.  It's partly because of the baggage that this term has been saddled with by both believers and unbelievers, but more because I would prefer to self-identify with what I *do* believe rather than what I don't.  I am, in point of fact, an a-unicornian in addition to being an atheist, but I don't want to self-identify as one of those either.

A possibility that has been suggested to me is to self-identify as a Humanist.  The problem with that is that I'm actually not a humanist.  Humanist doctrine (to the extent that a secular movement can be said to have a doctrine) is set out in a document called the Humanist Manifesto, of which there are three versions.  There is a lot to like in all three versions, but, in my opinion, a fatal flaw in the most recent revision:
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Or, to put it more bluntly, man is the measure of all things.

The problem with this view of morality is that it fails in my view to adequately answer the following question: if I have an intellectual curiosity about what happens when I torture a kitten, is it morally acceptable for me to conduct this experiment?  [UPDATE: I am specifically stipulating that no greater good will be served.  This is not scientific research, it is satisfying a personal whim.]

On a straightforward reading of the morals clause of the Manifesto the answer is an unambiguous "yes" because my interests as a human axiomatically trump the kitten's interests as a non-human.  And yet this grates heavily on my moral intuition, and, I suspect, on the moral intuition of most of my fellow humans, and even most of those who self-identify as humanists.

The mere fact that most humanists choose not to torture kittens does not give them license to sweep this issue under the rug.  Most Muslims choose not to engage in violent Jihad, but that does not stop the secular community from pointing out (rightly IMHO) that what they assert to be the Word of God does in fact endorse violent jihad.  It is no less justified to point out that what humanists hold up as their defining document doe not provide any principled way to reject kitten torture as immoral.  A humanist might reject kitten torture as personally distasteful, but there are no grounds on humanist doctrine for me to condemn your personal choice to torture kittens.

And yet, I do condemn it.  Torturing kittens is absolutely, unequivocally immoral.  And I believe that my moral condemnation of kitten torture can be justified on scientific grounds.  (Exactly how that is done will have to wait for another post.  It's not obvious.)  But I don't see any way to condemn kitten torture on the basis of Humanist Manifesto III, or even on the more general notion that man is the measure of all things.  That is why not only can I not self-identify as a humanist, I actively reject the label (unlike my attitude towards the term "atheist" which I reluctantly adopt as an accurate though incomplete description of my core beliefs).

Figuring out a principled way to make the argument that torturing kitten is immoral makes a challenging intellectual exercise.  If you, like me, believe that kitten torture is wrong, you might want to give it a shot. You should keep in mind that one doesn't have to go very far back in human history to find societies where the idea that it is immoral to torture animals for sport was the minority opinion, and that "it's wrong because I believe it is wrong" doesn't count as a principled argument.


Jonathan said...

It actually seems pretty simple: the Humanist Manifesto applies to things that exhibit human-like behavior rather than strictly humans themselves. You're taking too narrow a definition of the word "human".

The feeling that torturing a kitten is wrong, only feels wrong so as much we believe a kitten is human-like. That it can feel pain and has emotions. Organisms more similar to bacteria that are not human-like at all, we don't think of as being able to be tortured.

Even a human-like robot, most would probably feel badly about tearing apart or intentionally causing to malfunction.

Ron said...

Terrel Miedaner wrote a wonderful short story called "The Soul of the Mark III Beast" which is, essentially, about torturing a robot. It was anthologized in Doglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett's book "The Mind's I." (You can also find it on the web.) Recommended reading.

The idea that the Manifesto applies to "human-like creatures" is untenable. It's the same kind of shilly-shallying that religious people use to disclaim the unsavory parts of scripture. The fact of the matter is that the Manifesto clearly talks about "humans" and "humanity", which pretty clearly means Homo sapiens and not Felis catus. It also begs the question of what constitutes "human-like behavior", and specifically how much and what manner of "human-like" behavior a non-homo-sapien would have to exhibit to become a member of the club. You can't escape moral relativism by sweeping it under a terminological rug.