One issue that interests me is the relationship between libertarianism and animal rights. In particular, one argument for animal rights (and the one I think future generations will look at as the turning point) is the argument from marginal cases. Originally developed by Platonists such as Plutarch and Porphyry, it does the difficult work of either forcing libertarianism to concede animal rights or that some members of the species human lack such rights.

The argument goes that a standard (rights-based) libertarian defends that humans, in particular, have certain rights because we are creatures that function with rationality, we engaged with our society and our fellows in certain ways unique to us. Human beings, put simply have a privileged place in nature.

This already, before we even get to marginal cases, seems to presuppose a certain view of rationality that has been soundly beaten by modern thinking. Rationality is not a binary, one does not either have it fully or lack it. We have rationality in degrees and there is even the case that we should not consider rationality a unified concept, but as several species of rationality under the same umbrella.

This can be treated as an aside, though, libertarians are not committed to outmoded views of animal psychology (including that of humans). A libertarian could happily say that human beings are the only ones who develop sufficient reason to possess these rights. I will leave aside cases such as dolphins and other higher primates whose mental capacities include the potentiality or actuality for language use and advanced conceptualisation, since a libertarian might argue that these other animals specifically should not be harmed and possess negative rights, but not, say, an ocelot or an ursine.

What we do have though are cases of beings that are humans, but do not specifically possess the functions we associate with humans generally and, which libertarians believe, give rise to those rights as human beings. In the case of a child, these may be defended as being “foetal”: the child is going to acquire rationality eventually, all things being equal. There is a lot of debating about this going on and I think one of the central arguments revolves around the idea why treat a potential right as a right?

I don’t want to address this here; thought I agree a potential right is not a right, it is unneeded. I want to discuss the cases of humans, through some birth defect or disaster, who never will develop or lose the fundamental features of humans that enable our rights (but, for the sake of debate, still retain animal-level sentience). If these still have rights, the argument goes, it cannot be because of these features. It must be either because of some feature they still possess (and if so, don’t other animals share that feature?) or that they simply don’t possess these rights at all.

There are three libertarian lines that have tried to show this is a false dilemma. The first is offered by Tibor Machan (in Why Animal Rights Don’t Exist) and can be called the argument from species normality. He writes:

The most telling point against me goes as follows: “But there are people like very young kids, those in a coma, those with minimal mental powers, who also cannot be blamed, held responsible, etc., yet they have rights. Doesn’t that show that other than human beings can have rights?”

This response doesn’t recognize that classifications and ascriptions of capacities rely on the good sense of making certain generalizations. One way to show this is to recall that broken chairs, while they aren’t any good to sit on, are still chairs, not monkeys or palm trees. Classifications are not something rigid but something reasonable. While there are some people who either for a little or longer while – say when they’re asleep or in a coma – lack moral agency, in general people possess that capacity, whereas non-people don’t. So it makes sense to understand them having rights so their capacity is respected and may be protected. This just doesn’t work for other animals.

As David Graham notes, this immediately equivocates between temporary and permanent lack of the necessary functioning. Yet, this is just a flaw of Machan’s original and a more refined argument can be extracted, thus:

1) Human beings generally, as a species, possess features that [when combined with other arguments from rights theory] produce negative rights (such as personal freedoms).
2) Those who are permanently without these features are still members of a species that generally possess these features.
3) A pre-requisite for those rights is that if most members of a group have them, all do, including marginal cases.
C. Marginal cases have rights, without needing to argue for animal rights.

This argument is easily shown as extremely weak when one begins to pick at it. First of all there is James Rachels’s case of a creature that has, through some means, acquired the features and functions of a normal, everyday human. Do we deny this creature the right to non-interference because he belongs to a species that normally doesn’t have these features? If we judge people by the normality of the species then why give this creature added rights?

Graham moves from Rachels’s example to ask why do we restrict this argument to rights? Why do we not apply the normal duties and ethical responsibilities of humans upon the marginal cases? Yet, mens rea in any civilised nation shows that this is not what we do. Machan is committed to a prescriptive position whereby a child or severely mentally ill person is tried and sentenced as if a mentally healthy adult, because they are of the same species.

Two points I would like to add is, first, why do we assign species as the category? Machan has accepted that these classifications are not rigid and so why not dive headlong into the nonsense of “identity politics”? Graham notes this when he states that we are being judged as a species, not as individuals. No thank you, Professor Machan, your “libertarianism” is not for me.

Further though, on Graham’s point, is this fact that Machan doesn’t seem to provide an adequate reason why we choose the species over, say, the race or family or the ethnicity. I will bring up my reasons why I think he doesn’t later.

My second addition is that Machan completely ignores what it is that makes me possess those rights. It is those features that being a healthy, mentally-fit human enables me to possess. The being a human drops out of the pictures except as a causal, not moral, explanation of why I possess those features that grant me those rights. In the case of Rachels’s chimp, he has some other means (not being human) of acquiring those features. The features themselves, mixed with an objectivism about rights, is what gives rise to my rights.

There is a second argument, though: one I believe, at first stronger, but ultimately quite weak, and was written by Roderick Long. It concentrates on species normality, also, but where it differs is that it talks about a key difference between a, say, cow and a mentally deficient human in that the human has a lack from the norm of the species whereas the cow does not. In the case of the human, the “blank spot” (the norm deviation, as Long calls it) is something that another human being can step in and take over as a kind of surrogate agent on the others behalf.

It seems already that most, if not all, of Graham’s argument brings this new argument crashing down. It already judges an individual on the norms on their species and seems to do so arbitrarily, what is it about the gap that allows the new individual to fill that gap? If I am given moral guardianship over a “cow-minded woman” and, in my place as filling the gap of moral agency, decide I want to hire out her body to people of rather strange sexual fetishes then if my moral agency allows me to do it to my own body (which we can assume, as libertarians, that it does) then I have the full right to do so to her, I am the moral agent in this case.

Again, there is this flawed attribution in Long’s argument over where the source of rights lie in a human’s nature. It is because humans have or lack a certain feature as individuals, not as a general rule. Such “de-individualised libertarianism” is hardly fit to bear the name of libertarianism at all. It is those features that I actively possess, not what others who are like me in any number of arbitrarily set ways are like. It is not that I am accusing either Long or Machan or misunderstanding libertarianism here, but I will expand on why that is latter.

Finally, there is a weaker argument still that accepts the problem of these marginal cases, but seems to rest of the difficulty of drawing the line. The problem, like many arguments that fall back on blurred lines, is that the situation is like a Venn diagram. There are the blurry edges and okay, we may have to give the benefit of the doubt to these blurry cases, but look at a patient in a terrible accident, his brain so heavily damaged that barely enough higher brain functioning for self-awareness is even possible, only the sort of pain responses that rudimentary intelligence possesses and the bare knowledge of self-existence possessed by most mammals. There is just no blur here. Further, because we have gone from thinking animals just automata in the Scholastic period to our modern conception of animal psychology, the blur works both ways. Further to this, we can imagine a future state where medical science completely removes any and all blur. After all, the only reason we know now that some individuals were falsely diagnosed with PVS was that advances in technology and practices allowed such errors to be corrected.

So, we are left with the dilemma. What I think the correct response to this is comes from Graham again (though not originally) when he correctly identifies that fact that we can suffer and have a vested interest in avoiding suffering that means we, as moral agents, must avoid harming each other (including animals). Of course, the possession of this right is not the same as the possession of moral agency and that animals or marginal cases possess these rights does not require that they possess this moral agency also. If possession of moral agency is a prerequisite for the possession of those rights, this affects marginal cases as much as animals.

These arguments by Machan, Long and others are all very weak and I think that their defeat symbolises a dilemma that few libertarians face out of, I believe, intellectual dishonesty (and the almost hash natures of the arguments given by them are not real engagements, I could have told Machan how a person like Singer and Rachels would have demolished his argument before the ink was dry on his argument). They do not want to face the idea that marginal cases have no rights (though some do, but I have not addressed their claims here) or accept that animals have rights as well. I’m sorry, my fellows, but (at this point, at least) you have no other options.

Of course, I will want to argue further that we only have one of these options (i.e. animal rights), but that is for another time. My parting remark is that I think libertarians (like most people) generally want to believe marginal cases have rights and non-humans do not, but avoid this dilemma out of avoidance of cognitive dissonance (like most people). They do not want to face the fact that two deeply held beliefs are incompatible and so simply refuse to follow the train of thought, though logical, that leads them to the realisation that they believe at least one false thing. This is why, as I said earlier, I do not believe Long or Machan are misunderstanding libertarianism, but perhaps the truth is even more dishonest.


A problem that moral relativists often have is that many moral relativists (often of the University-level, slacktivist variety, the kind who often profess very strong moral beliefs without noticing the contradiction) will wade into an ethical debate and attack a position based on the relativity or subjectivity of that position. For example, in one recent incident I saw a relativist attack a conservative position on pornography.

The conservative position was presented fairly, it was the idea that pornography degrades the moral integrity of individuals. Perhaps she used a wording that ignores the complexity such a position can possess, but it was a fair presentation of the conservative stance in its rawest form and was a good starting point. She then asked (as if it would win the debate) whether the conservative was just projecting his or her own moral ideals onto others; in other words, was the conservative just pretending that conservative morality is objective?

This is certainly, prima facie, a legitimate move to make. A claim to an objective morality (conservative or otherwise) could be counteracted by showing that there is no objectivity. What my example above did, however, was not to try to defend moral relativism, but merely to assert it. Her position failed simply because a premise upon which her entire argument pivoted was highly contested and she had no real interest in defending it.

What this means, at the end of all this, is that the conservative (or people like me, who reject conservatism on morally realist grounds) need see no real threat from such a position. To return to her original query, the conservative might say that there is no need to project his or her moral beliefs onto others as they already apply to everyone and there is no need to pretend because they are objective (so the conservative believes and she certainly gave no reason to revise that belief). All she can do here is re-assert her moral relativism (a childish move at worst, a reserved admission of defeat at best) or try to defend it (which is the only hope she would have of developing her position into something of substance). Sadly, this point seemed lost on her.

While not strictly committed, libertarians have often numbered highly amongst the anti-psychiatry movement. The anti-psychiatry movement is one I, personally, have had mixed feelings about because they run a huge gamut of reasons for being such.

On the very hard-edge, you can find radical subjectivists and nihilists who argue that even a lack of comprehension for the rights and liberties of others does not constitute any objective abnormality. Under the most radical views, this entails that even the “criminally insane” are being oppressed by government or society. An example like Lester Ballard in the brilliant Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God would be of the oppressed and, invited to see his decline, his abuse at the hands of society internally, a strange logic and understanding begins to emerge.

But a hell and fire condemnation of people like Ballard is not the only alternative to arguing that Ballard should be let be or that his eventual willingness to murder and tendency to necrophilia upon his victims are only problems because of society’s relative definition. If we treat them equally to those diagnosed “normal” then we would arrest, try and imprison Ballard, but as soon as his sentence is over (no treatment given) he would venture forth and the cycle begins again. If we imprison him until he has shown an ability to live in harmony with his fellow human beings, we may be imprisoning many people indefinitely.

It seems an alternative to this is completely voluntary mental health care. Ballard could remain imprisoned or could (voluntarily) take up treatment that makes him better adjusted. Here, though, I imagine that psychological treatment is far superior to any psychiatric treatment if the psychological treatment works for a given patient. My own sister is ill with Schizophrenia, in fact, and while anti-psychotics do help, they do not offer any long-term solution and giving her the tools to fight her own demons (the promise of psychological treatment) is the ultimate end of treatment.

Why should a so-called ill individual accept treatment, though? After all, isn’t their so-called illness just a tool of social oppression? Well, there do seem to be various mental illnesses with shaky grounds (gender identity disorder in the DSM-IV is a good example here), but these tend to be the ones less likely to cause criminal activity. If we take this idea that society defines mental illness to its extreme, though, we end up with problems.

Homosexuality was once considered a mental illness by mainstream psychiatry. If we take the view that illness is defined by society then we can no longer say that they were wrong, per se, only that they define mental illness differently to us. Homosexuality, on this view, is neither a mental illness or a natural, healthy state objectively, it depends on the society. I would oppose this completely: homosexuality was no more a mental illness in any other age than it is in ours (which is to say, it’s not at all one).

If we take the line that both cultures are wrong: that all so-called illnesses or behavioural aberrations from the so-called norm are natural then we are left with a problem that some do violate the rights of others because of these so-called aberrations. If we treat them as normal criminals we head back to the Ballard problem earlier.

Most of these radical positions often go aligned with moral relativism or nihilism. This might give rise to the response that even our notion of rights are a social construct and any of these so-called violations are not really moral problems. Of course, this means that even the most vicious treatment of the mentally ill throughout the ages are not moral problems, either (since any notion that they have a right not to be abused in such a way is also a construct). One could go so far as to take the advice of the Manic Street Preachers in their song Archives of Pain, which advocates the most draconic punishment possible based on the grounds that we’d be getting rid of people like Myra Hindley or Peter Sutcliffe more cost effectively and we’d be no better or worse off morally speaking, even if innocents occasionally fall victim to this system.

I’m often left wondering where to stand exactly because it is such a morally difficult area to tread. At the very least, state control over psychiatry is something I find deeply suspicious and troubling and that should be opposed. Further, I think an emphasis on voluntary treatment and the methods of psychology over the methods of psychiatry alongside a continual, vigorous, but open-minded public scepticism towards individual mental illnesses must be ever-present, but I don’t think we should throw the notion away entirely.

(A quick note here should be that I feel opposition to extreme treatments like ECT and lobotomy is fully justified. At the very least, I feel it would require exhausting all other options and be completely voluntary.)

Bush’s legacy

2008 December 2

Seeing this on Andrew Sullivan’s blog lifted up my (already pretty up) day. The audacity of some to even defend the idea of torture or mask what clearly is torture behind rhetoric or jargon is a grave insult to the foundations of our civilisation. Thankfully, Balkin does rip up the argument Posner presents as to what Bush should have done (which, for Posner, seems to be deny that the torture was unjustified or even that things like waterboarding were torture at all).

What Posner seems to present that really interests me is that idea that police officers have killed people, but we don’t necessary say it was murder as that has a moral element: it is the unlawful killing of a human being. This is analogised with the events that we call “torture”. Torture has this moral component and Posner seems to argue, at this point, that to call the US’s waterboarding “torture” is like calling the lawfully killing of a dangerous suspect by police “murder”. This argument is ridiculous given that torture is often committed by states who often will try to pass it off as something other than what it is and the Bush administration partly justified (or attempted to justify) these wars in the Middle East on the grounds that torture was being used by the states that America attacked.

This is my first post in many months due to my nearing the end of my Masters and the process of moving and job hunting afterwards. Things should continue on a more stable flow.

In 2007, Amnesty International (a group with traditionally more conservative Catholic leanings than a good deal of its modern membership, including myself, would suggest) changed its long-standing neutrality on abortion. I am pro-choice, but am quick to note that the pro-choice is in lower case. Libertarians at large are mixed on the issue of abortion, depending on whether or not the foetus possesses rights. That, libertarians argue, is the key issue.

Personally, I have a modest pro-choice stance. I support lowering the time limit on abortion because if there is any real chance, which seems increasingly likely, that the foetus acquires any degree of sentience at around 24 weeks of pregnancy then it ought not be aborted. The consistency lies in the property of consciousness.

This is an aside, I will accept (at least, for sake of argument) that both moderate pro-choice and moderate pro-life positions are internally consistent. I can comprehend and balance a variety of reasons for supporting both.

There is one position that I have found to lack any such internal logic. This is the position represented by Amnesty International’s current stance. While retaining their neutrality on abortion generally, they have adopted a position that advocates abortion in cases of rape or incest (presumably, with mother’s consent).

Let us go back to the concept of a right. The issue is that, at any given point of time, the foetus ether does or does not possess the right to life. One of the central features of rights is that they are intrinsic. My right to freedom of conscience is purely internal to me, it is based on the fact that I possess a developed conscience and am a responsible individual. It does not have any dependence on the particulars of how I came to possess these features, only that I possess them. It could be said that, in technical terms, a right supervenes over the properties (but this steers heavily into the metaphysics of rights).

Regardless of whether you place the right of a being to live at conception, birth or (as I do) a state in-between, it either does or does not possess the right to life. Let us assume that it has no right to life until it becomes a child (i.e. is born), what this means is that at the time of abortion it had no right to life: the fact that it was the product of rape or incest drops out of consideration ethically (though maybe not psychologically for those who would have to raise it). If, on the other hand, it did have a right (whether through a conception-based idea of right of life or something more akin to my ideas concerning consciousness) then that right is not negated by the fact that it is a product of rape, incest or even accident. It possesses the features necessary to possess the right and rape, incest or accident completely drop out again.

Amnesty International has compromised its neutrality and is offending both sides of the abortion debate within its membership. As Doug Stanhope once said of this poisition on abortion, “it’s like saying that you have a right to life unless your dad was an asshole.”

It’s not just that position that offends me about Amnesty International. Their position as regards some more radical claims of feminism and their position on men’s and women’s rights troubles me. An example is that in several issues they noted that a portion of England believe the women was “asking for it” in most cases of rape, while ignoring the equally barbaric and also more common (often those who hold the former belief about women in rape will hold this too) presumption of guilt for the accused (or the even more commonly held belief that female violence against, or female rape of, men is a perfectly acceptable topic for light humour). Of course, Amnesty International is right that the idea that a person could be “asking for it” is obscene. Inasmuch as it is concerned with the issue of rape though, it should combat and condemn both. I will accept without grudge that concentrating on women’s issues is generally more important in the developing world, but this was in England.

Another bad right-wing commentator can be found in the form of Michael Savage. Recently, his escapades have included denying that autism represents anything more than “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out” and that autistic people should “stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot”. This was on his July 16th show and responses have been reported here.

His medical background (which includes several degrees) is in “alternative medicine” and this should immediately alert any informed reader as to the value of his opinion on serious medical issues like autism. It is a strange background for a political commentator on the right, but there is nothing inconsistent with American conservatism and support for alternative medicines, I just wanted to draw attention to what weight (or lack thereof) that should give his opinions on medical matters.

A good thing this all shows, though, is the power of the free market to penalise such statements without hindering free speech. His negative rights are not breached if no one sponsors his show, his right to speech is perfectly intact. All that is really hindered is his ability to avail himself of the tools to get that speech heard so widely, something he has no right to. His speech will not provoke any deep, intellectual debate on the subject of autism and so it is only good that his advertisers penalise him so.


2008 July 26

Mark Swed, L.A. Times music critic, has this to say about elitism:

“A ticket to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fancy-schmancy Walt Disney Concert Hall may not always be easy to come by at the last minute and top seats are now $147. But for most programs, bench seats behind the stage (which many love) go on sale two weeks before the concert for $15. Do I need to detail the princely sums in the thousands it takes to attend an NBA playoff? On Broadway, $400 tickets no longer raise eyebrows. At Disney, we are a democratic audience who sit together. In the supposedly populist Staples Center, luxury suites resemble nothing so much as the royal boxes in European opera houses of old. Anyone can go to an art museum, but not anyone can get past the bouncers at the latest in-crowd club.”

It’s an interesting idea, as this accusation of elitism gets thrown at certain parts of our culture despite the fact that this is a claim to superiority that is defended (whether correctly or not, it means that one cannot viably dismiss it as elitism and be done with it). More than this, as Swed notes, “anyone can go to an art museum, but not anyone can get past the bouncers at the latest in-crowd club.”

This is one important point, the doors of high culture are fairly wide. There is no guarantee when sitting in an opera house that you will grasp the depth and complexity of, say, Berg’s Wozzeck or take away any of the insights it offers. In fact, with no intellectual effort, it is almost a guarantee you will walk away disappointed. Is this all as bad as the supposed anti-elitism?

In Tenured Radicals, Roger Kimball noted the dreadful text Speaking for the Humanities (there is an entire chapter on it, see pg. 55 of the revised edition in particular) from postmodern “anti-elitist” authors who, at points, pin the defending of a supposedly elitist, traditional canon on amateurs, non-academics. What could be more a showcase of elitism that this grandiose ad hominem attack on all those who oppose them in one fell swoop? This is, of course, from a group who readily accuse “dead white male” culture of elitism.

Even more mundane than this, look a little further into Swed’s article and one sees a whole host of potential elitist examples within popular culture. For my own paragon example of elitism in popular culture, take a look at just about any subculture, from emos to fans of Japanese animation, and tell me there isn’t a solid presence of elitism in every one of them.