Saturday, February 4, 2012

Singer's Peculiar Argument

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer certainly is led to some odd conclusions given his premises that there is no God and that human life is not inherently valuable. He's argued in the past that infanticide should be legal and that people suffering from dementia should be euthanized, and his latest foray into the ethics of life is equally controversial. Singer believes it's immoral for the navy to use dolphins to detect mines because it endangers the lives of the dolphins. He writes:
According to earlier reports, the US Navy has trained about 80 dolphins to detect mines. Some reports say that the dolphins only locate the mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby, so that humans can destroy the mines, but it is also possible for the dolphins to set off the mines and die in the resulting explosion, and, of course, using the dolphins in this way makes them – and any other dolphins in the area – targets for the Iranians to destroy if they can.

Animals, or at least those who are conscious and capable of suffering or enjoying their lives, are not things for us to use in whatever way we find convenient. To believe that, because they are members of a different species, we can ignore or discount their interests is speciesism, a form of prejudice against beings who are not "us" that is akin to racism and sexism. We should give equal consideration to the interests of any sentient being, where their interests are similar to our own.

Dolphins are social mammals, capable of enjoying their lives. They form close bonds with other members of their group. They respond to images of themselves in a mirror, and use the mirror to examine marks on parts of their body that they cannot otherwise see – a test that is widely taken to be a sign of self-awareness, which human children cannot pass until they are somewhere between 18 months and two years of age.

The United States no longer conscripts its citizens to fight its wars. All its human troops are volunteers. But even conscripts have some basic rights. The dolphins have none.

Late last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, together with three international orca experts, and two former orca trainers asked a federal court in San Diego to declare that five orcas held and forced to perform by SeaWorld are held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that outlaws slavery. The suit has yet to be heard, but a similar case might be made against the US Navy for its use of dolphins.
I'm a bit surprised that PETA wants to extend constitutional protections to orcas inasmuch as I don't think the drafters of the 13th amendment had orcas in mind when they drafted the prohibition against slavery. Indeed, the logic employed by Singer and PETA would make it both immoral and unconstitutional for Amish farmers to use mules to pull their plows, for police to use dogs to sniff out contraband, and for zoos to keep animals in cages.

I'm also a bit surprised that Singer bases his argument for banning the use of dolphins on these missions on the high intelligence of these animals. If they're so intelligent, and they don't want to do what the navy trains them to do, then they can simply swim off.

Singer concludes with this:
Various civilizations have, at times, enslaved human beings and forced them to fight for their oppressors. That despicable practice is now rightly condemned, as far as human beings are concerned, but the enslavement of other species continues, in many areas of human life, and the use of slaves in war continues in the United States Navy.
What makes a slave a slave is that they are kept against their will and forced against their will to serve their master. How does Singer know that the navy's dolphins meet either criterion?

He doesn't, of course, but the main point to be made here is this: Singer is assuming that people will agree with him that it's wrong - immoral - to place in harm's way intelligent animals against their will, but why, given Singer's atheism, does he think that this is wrong, or, for that matter, that anything is wrong?

Neither Singer nor anyone else who shares his naturalistic worldview can say that there is any moral right and wrong. All they can say is that they don't like how the navy's treating dolphins, but why should anyone care what Professor Singer likes about this any more than we should care what flavor ice cream he prefers? It's absurd for Singer, given his rejection of any ground for objective moral values, to argue for anything on moral grounds, but he does it all the same. It's a very peculiar argument.