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The London Libertarian

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Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >

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personal identity

Philosophy Posted on Tue, May 06, 2014 21:50:38

personal identity One way of attempting to undermine *libertarianism is to question whether continuing personal identity makes proper sense, either scientifically or *philosophically. For if it does not, then anti-*individualistic *moral and *political conclusions might be, and on this basis have sometimes been, drawn as regards the redistribution of assets (see *equality) and praise and blame (see *freedom and responsibility; *justice; *restitution). Only a very rough outline of the arguments can be attempted in the short space of this entry.

Two important general arguments go as follows. 1) The cells of the body are replaced to a considerable degree, if not quite completely, on average every seven to ten years (except possibly, and perhaps significantly, the neurons of the cerebral cortex, but also the inner lens cells of the eye and perhaps the muscle cells of the heart). Thus we eventually become a more or less completely different material object that merely looks approximately the same and has the illusion of being a continuous being that itself has had certain experiences and undertaken certain acts long in the past. We are almost like the ship of Theseus that has been replaced piece by piece until no original part remains. 2) There is also the, analytically separate, possibility that all of one’s *opinions or memories or character traits change so radically that one can no longer be regarded as the same *person that one once was. Many philosophers have used introspection to arrive at the conclusion that some collection and continuity of conscious experiences is all that the self as a continuing thing can really be.

Two brief answers are as follows. 1) Biology seems to show us that a human being that is a particular person simply is a continuing body that is capable of being a person (though not necessarily continuously, as when temporarily unconscious). That is, we who are particular persons are *animals that both mature and later decay and also that early on evolve, and in the end eventually lose, the characteristics of personhood. The fact that almost all of our cells are replaced molecule by molecule, even if we assume that this process is total, does not make us a different thing. The biological and genetic aspect of this process makes the continuing organism a single *natural thing in a far more cogent way than the ship of Theseus. 2) Still less would the change of all of our opinions, memories or character traits make us a different entity, as these are only contingent aspects of the particular person (biological body plus personhood) that we are. The drastic loss of too many of these might well cause others, and even ourselves, to describe us as a ‘different person’ as regards what we were formerly like. However, the very fact that something that is a person is acknowledged to persist throughout to carry the differences, thereby indicates that the identity of a particular person qua particular person is not lost. Introspection can only give us subjective answers. But there is no reason to suppose that the continuing person is inherently subjective.

In other words, most problems can be solved once we accept that both the unchanging and the psychological conceptions of personal identity are simply mistaken. Thus various other paradoxes and puzzles along the same lines can also be answered with this theory of personal identity. To step into a ‘matter transporter’ that disassembles you at one end and then reassembles ‘you’ exactly but from different matter at the other end is really to die as a continuing organism while being copied in order to create a new person, who has the mere illusion of being oneself. It is not to be ‘transported’ at all. And to be disassembled while having all of one’s opinions, memories, and modes of thought somehow ‘uploaded’ onto a computer that then becomes a conscious person, also with the illusion of being oneself, is also to be destroyed. And any brain transplant would move the key part of the body that is both the person and part of the animal, maintaining personal identity with that part but leaving a human shell behind. A transplant that halved the brain such that each half developed separate consciousness in a different body would mean that the original person was now in two places and had become two, but presumably less complete, persons. Strange and not a little unlikely, but not paradoxical in any way (viz., against logic, the facts or even *common sense). The myriad nice variations on such thought experiments cannot be tackled further here. Suffice it to say that sufficient physical discontinuity or damage to the organism that has personhood will eventually seriously compromise and then break the chain that constitutes a particular biological person. But there is not sufficient physical discontinuity or damage if we only bear the normal wear and tear of everyday life.

All that said, however, even if this theory of personal identity were false, it would not follow that we ought not to treat human beings generally as though it were *true. For it does not appear practical to flout the view that we are continuing individual persons, just because it is so natural and persistent to see ourselves that way and no good would seem to be promised by attempting to deny it. Our behaviour continues to be the same, and *economically productive, regardless of the ‘illusion’. And even if it is an illusion, we will always be more closely related to the persons that we are due to become, and so we have more *self-interested reason to be concerned about ‘them’ than other persons (which is not to deny the reality of *altruism).

A Dictionary of Libertarianism


Philosophy Posted on Tue, May 06, 2014 21:45:20

person There is an important intellectual, and *moral, sense of being a person that, intuitively, is not conceptually linked with being a human being. A human being need not be a person (if a foetus or brain-dead, for instance) and a person need not be human (any sufficiently sophisticated conscious being would qualify). But what makes a person a person in this sense, and why does it matter?

Self-consciousness cannot in itself be a sufficient criterion, as is sometimes thought (oddly, it might not even be necessary; although consciousness or sentience is). *Animals probably have some degree of self-consciousness even at quite primitive levels: in order to distinguish between themselves and their environments for survival purposes. An aspect of *language usage appears to be more relevant. Many animals use language at the lower levels, to express emotions and to signal (sometimes dishonestly) and describe (even bees, in their way, describe directions to pollen by the ‘dance’ that they do in front of the other bees in the hive). Only human beings use language critically, or argumentatively, and theoretically. This *critical-theoretical, or meta-theoretical (in a sense, *philosophical), function of language enables typical human beings to rise above their immediate beliefs and desires and enter an intellectual realm that has a content that extends beyond their consciousness. If we consider the ‘three worlds’ of Karl Popper (1902-1994), loosely but mnemonically, 1) matter, 2) mind, 3) *memes (here meaning intellectual products of the mind as encoded in matter), then we can add the relevant and anterior realm 0) modes: the realm of all possible theories (including *facts). Being able to enter this realm critically is an intellectual sense of being a ‘person’ and may be what distinguishes typical human beings from beasts. Being a person appears to involve simply achieving this critical-theoretical ability; which is not to imply that one ceases to be a person if temporarily unconscious (just as a scientist is still a scientist when not engaged in science). One does not become more of a person as one becomes better at this. Other things being equal, however, one’s life might become more valuable to oneself.

Consider a chimpanzee that can talk in sign language, as some that have been taught by humans can do. If it could count objects up to ten, or say “walk” when it wanted a walk, or “food” when it wanted food, then we would be impressed but still consider it a sort of beast. But if it started to express and critically assess theories (as no chimpanzee has yet done), with testable and manifest understanding, then we should think of it as beyond a mere beast.

Being a person is so important that most persons would judge, along with J. S. Mill (1806-1873) that, “It is better to be a human being [i.e., a person] dissatisfied than a pig [i.e. a beast] satisfied”. (Mill continues, “better to be Socrates [i.e., a philosopher] dissatisfied than a fool [or, presumably, any person of more limited intellectual faculties] satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” Utilitarianism, 1863) The state of being a person is thus qualitatively different from being a beast. Persons have more intrinsic moral importance than beasts, just as beasts have more intrinsic moral importance than plants (which is not to say greater moral importance in all possible circumstances). And there are things that it is permissible to do to the latter but not to the former in each case. Thus mere hedonistic *utilitarianism is refuted. Therefore, *libertarianism is not arbitrary in focusing on *liberty for persons, rather than beasts. And persons can defensibly value liberty, even to err, more highly than *paternalism that aims at making them more hedonistically satisfied, even if that paternalism could be guaranteed to be uncorrupt and efficient at achieving its goals (both of which are highly unlikely).

It is clearly possible to have theories without putting them into language (symbolic representation). Most daily thoughts are non-linguistic: experiences and inclinations, etc. Language is mainly used as a mnemonic for oneself and to communicate with others. But it is not clear that it is possible to enter the critical-theoretical realm of personhood without language. Would telepathic persons, qua persons, think in linguistic symbols or only images? This theoretical sketch of intellectual personhood need not attempt an answer.

See *personal identity.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

animal welfare

Philosophy Posted on Tue, May 06, 2014 21:30:23

animal welfare If people object to cruelty to animals, then the history of preventing the worst excesses of this is better exemplified by the influence of the *market, as people choose to withdraw their custom from the businesses that do not treat animals humanely (witness the ‘beauty without pain’ campaign in the cosmetics industry) or buy, or own by first capture, the animals they wish to protect (including hippopotami, elephants and, one day, whales—maybe with radio-wave security tags), and *charity; animal charities often being more popular than human ones.

The *state has often maintained or even promoted animal cruelty such as the introduction of compulsory animal-testing for various products, which often serves no useful purpose (especially when, possibly paid, human volunteers would otherwise be available and more relevant if allowed). That said, there is a danger of anthropomorphism and sentimentalism with respect to beasts, especially where there is no actual pain involved though some experiment looks or sounds gruesome (such as sewing a kitten’s eyes closed). These errors are also muddled with the views of *egalitarian statists who partly use them as pretexts to attack (upper *class) fox hunting, shooting and fur wearing but not (lower class) rabbit hunting, fishing and leather wearing. When vested interest groups can lobby for *legislation on these grounds, then the state can overprotect beasts at the expense of *persons.

A beast has little conception of its own future or its own death, and certainly no life plan that can be frustrated. Neither has it, usually, friends and relations that will grieve severely and long at its death (though these things are sometimes less true of the higher animals, which approach being persons and so might merit more considerate treatment). Many animals only exist, in such numbers or at all, because we like the products we can get from them. And if we continually replace, say, older sheep with younger ones, in a humane way, then there will be more animal *welfare than if we instead allowed the sheep to die of old age, and considerably more than if we did not breed them at all (as we largely would not if we could not *exploit them). By contrast, to kill a person is to destroy a higher being with a unique biography and life-plan and mind (intellectual life), and probably a network of similar friends and relations. Any systematic killing is also likely to be known about and thus give rise to a general fear and even terror that would undermine human welfare considerably.

So people that are sincerely interested in animal welfare should be championing the humane exploitation of animals rather than denigrating all animal use and likening them to persons. Where there is a clash between people in terms of the treatment of animals, both *liberty and humaneness would seem to suggest that it is better to allow the different groups to go their own ways (though *free speech, *boycotting and, not least, purchase remain to persuade the other side) rather than that either side uses systematic *aggression, paid for by *tax-*extortion if statist, to impose its preferred, and highly debatable, option on the other.

A few topical issues follow. Foxes are vermin that cannot practically be allowed to breed unchecked. Fox hunting appears far less cruel, if seriously cruel at all (the fox is used to fleeing and the death is usually near instantaneous), than allowing the fox to inflict many more deaths by its own hunting (and as foxes are partly tolerated for the purpose of hunting, many foxes enjoy a life only because hunting exists). Shooting, poisoning, or trapping foxes often causes death after much suffering; often to other animals in error. There is no, necessary, cruelty involved with fur farming; and releasing the farmed animals would cause cruelty to them, in a much harder life, and their prey, in a much harder death. Bear-baiting, where a de-fanged and de-clawed bear is attacked by dogs, simply tortures a higher animal. This appears qualitatively different from dog or cock fighting; where there might be very little pain felt in the excitement of the fight, and death soon follows for the badly injured.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

animal rights

Philosophy Posted on Tue, May 06, 2014 21:28:22

animal rights *Libertarianism is only for *persons. Human persons are also animals, of course (a species of primate). ‘Animal rights’ refers to those animals, sometimes known as beasts, that are not persons.

A *right is normally understood as a *legitimate claim by one person against other people. It would be clear to say that someone whose money was stolen by another person had had his rights infringed. It would be odd to say that a dog that bit a man had itself, rather than its owner, infringed that man’s rights (and a mere joke to arrest the dog and try him). This is because rights are normally understood against a background of some sort of, tacit, *social contract whereby we bind ourselves to behave toward others in certain ways as long as those others accept to be relevantly bound toward us. In other words, rights imply reciprocal, but not necessarily identical, *duties and must be understood—or at least understandable—by the parties involved.

Other animals cannot have clear duties (though a dog might have some inkling of what behaviour is expected of him if he is to receive his dinner). It might be thought that a human baby has a right to be cared for but no duties, but there is no right to care as it is not yet a person. Young *children have rights, but then they have certain duties as regards behaviour as well. Even completely dependent persons are likely to have some duties as regards their behaviour (or maybe to have had some duties before they contracted into care, which contract gives them the rights now; otherwise we have no libertarian right to be provided for by others).

It is part of *rights inflation that other animals are sometimes held to have rights even though they cannot have duties (and some animal rightists have even called some other animals ‘persons’ and asserted that they have *‘nations’). So the ascription of ‘animal rights’ looks to be some combination of *propagandistic hyperbole and a category mistake. One thing that is clearly irrelevant to this debate—and it is, ironically, a form of speciesism to assert that it is—is the genetic relatedness, particularly of certain apes, to humans. Being a person is what matters to (libertarian and other) rights, and that is not necessarily related to a species. If cruelty to some other animals is inherently bad and immoral, this is not because of animal rights any more than it is wrong to destroy a great work of art because of great artwork rights.

See *animal welfare.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

A Moral Defense of Meat-Eating

Philosophy Posted on Tue, May 06, 2014 20:25:26

A moral case for vegetarianism has been made by some philosophers and has become popular among a small group of people not noted for their reticence. The most influential of these philosophers is Peter Singer. Singer’s argument is that it’s immoral to cause suffering, that the suffering of non-human animals has equal weight with the suffering of humans, that you can’t eat meat without patronizing and encouraging the inflicting of suffering on animals, and that therefore it must be immoral to eat meat, except in cases of dire necessity.

I think this argument is mistaken, and I will now give you my chief counter-argument. My counter-argument contains a lemma—an intermediate conclusion that I can then use as a premiss for my final argument. To keep things short and simple, I’m not going to argue here for the lemma (though I am going to briefly explain the point of it), since I believe that most people, if they think about it even briefly will agree with it. I’m just going to state the lemma and then move on from there. (Although I say “my” counter-argument, I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything original about this. I’ve heard something similar to this before, though I have no idea who first came up with it. After all, it’s pretty obvious.)

Lemma: We’re not under any moral obligation to act so as to reduce the total amount of animal suffering below what it is in the wild, or below what it would be if humans didn’t exist. In other words, if the immorality of eating meat is dependent on humans causing animals to suffer, then it can’t be immoral to eat meat if the production of meat for human consumption does not increase the suffering of animals above what it would have been in the absence of any human intervention.

Explanation of the lemma: In the absence of human intervention, animals like deer and oxen would be eaten by non-human predators. When humans eat meat, they’re competing with other meat-eating animals, such as lions and wolves. If the predators disappear, this may lead to overpopulation of the former prey animals and consequent unwelcome environmental effects such as deforestation followed by soil erosion. The situation is not changed in principle if we move from hunting to the raising of livestock: the morally relevant issue is whether the cows or sheep we’re raising would suffer more, or less, or the same, if they were in the wild and being eaten by lions or wolves.

The lemma allows the possibility that some ways of treating animals may be immoral, but the lemma rules out the presumptive immorality of all cases of treating animals in such a way that their situation is no worse than they would face in the wild. In the case of hunting, this is clear enough. Anyone who knows cats knows that they love to keep their prey alive and toy with it before finally killing it, and this causes more suffering than would be caused by a quick kill with an arrow or a bullet. So human hunting causes less suffering than hunting by at least some other predators.

Could it be argued that by hunting deer, humans are causing suffering to lions and wolves by taking away their prey? This doesn’t look like a promising line of argument. Humans are hunters by nature, and it’s not clear why we would feel obliged to let other species of hunters have prey that we could have. A lion whose potential prey is killed by a human is no worse off than a lion whose potential prey is killed by another lion, and in either case the total lion population adjusts to the availability of prey for lions, with marginal lions always dying or otherwise failing to reproduce because of competition.

As we move from hunting to raising livestock, no important new issues of principle arise. Do farm animals suffer more or less than animals in the wild? It’s not clear that they suffer any more, and it seems likely that they suffer a lot less. The day-to-day life of a cow munching the grass and chewing the cud has less excitement than that of the wild ox, continually fearful of sudden attack by a predator, but I doubt that the cow would get a thrill from dangerous adventures the way some humans do. When death comes to the cow, it does not seem to cause any more suffering than death in the wild—and if we ever found out that it did, we could adjust our techniques of slaughter, without abandoning the practice of killing animals for food. My argument is not that all and any ways of raising and killing animals for food are morally acceptable, but merely that some feasible ways are morally acceptable, and therefore morality does not require vegetarianism.

Some people may feel that the life of an animal in the wild is in some way better than that of a farm animal, even though the farm animal experiences less actual pain and fear. Well, we observe, as real incomes rise, that there is a growing interest in both recreational hunting and in the demand for game animals, animals killed in the wild, in preference to farm-raised animals. The meat of game animals is leaner and tastes better. This trend is merely the tip of a broader movement towards free-range raising of animals. Suppliers of meat can charge more for meat that has been produced in a ‘more natural’ way, partly because of superior taste and partly because consumers feel better knowing that what they were eating was produced in a more natural way. As our incomes rise, we spontaneously move away from factory farming toward free-range farming, and then ultimately to preferring meat from animals that have been hunted in the wild.

If we accept the lemma, then the mere fact that some suffering occurs to animals when they’re raised for meat production is not enough to show that this is immoral. Instead, we have to show that they necessarily suffer more than they (or corresponding animals, which might be a bit different in a hypothetical alternative world) would suffer, if the human population were much smaller and the populations of lions and wolves much bigger.

Although I’m not offering arguments for the lemma, I do want to look at three possible ways of rejecting it. Someone could maintain that our obligation is simply to stop suffering wherever we can. One way to stop the suffering that comes from animals being harvested as prey would be to wipe out those animals. Thus, we could kill all oxen (including beef cows). At the same time, we would wipe out all the predators, the animals that would have eaten the oxen. This would mean wiping out virtually all animal species, including insects, birds, and fish, for all these animals are either predators or likely prey. Some folks would feel sad that all these species had disappeared, but they could console themselves with the thought that being extinct means you never have to suffer, whereas being extant means you do have to suffer.

Consistently, we should extend this to humans: they should be killed off, and then no human would ever suffer again. (Just to keep an eye on things and make sure everyone follows the rules, I’ll be the last one to go.) If allowing suffering is decisively immoral then every sentient living thing, including humans, should be made extinct, because this and only this guarantees no more suffering.

Another person might, however, approach the issue a bit differently. Instead of killing all animals, we could take over and manage the entire animal kingdom, transforming it into something very different from the way it has evolved, intervening with birth control drugs, factory-produced food, analgesics, and anesthetics. The former predators could be fed substitute foods made in factories from soybeans, or even directly from industrial chemicals. Since they would suffer somewhat from not being able to hunt, we would have to provide them with robotic imitation-prey, so that they could continue to experience the activity of hunting. Herbivores could be left to graze the wilderness, but fed fertility-reducing drugs to keep their populations stable. There would still be some suffering: accidents do happen, and every animal has to die, though we could try to limit this suffering by infiltrating the natural world with robots using analgesic and anesthetic dart guns, watching all the while for any impending pain or anxiety.

There are various aspects of this scenario which may not be very appealing. Be that as it may, it is not feasible right now, and won’t be feasible without a huge investment over many decades, if not centuries (think about the difficulty in ensuring that every fish in the oceans is guaranteed never to be eaten). So, even assuming that this ambitious intervention is morally required, we’re stuck for a while with the choice between a certain amount of suffering in the wild and a certain amount of suffering (probably the same or a bit less) down on the farm. And therefore, if we accept the lemma, we must reject the case for vegetarianism on grounds of the suffering caused by meat-eating.

Of course, most vegetarians will reject those two approaches and go for a third approach: simply have humans abstain from meat-eating. But what the lemma helps to bring out is that this option has an arbitrary quality. Turning humans into herbivores means excluding other herbivores from a large area of land, reducing the world’s populations of non-human herbivores. So the third approach is a kind of partial and inconsistent version of the first approach. Either we have an obligation to reduce animal suffering every chance we get, or we don’t have such an obligation. Eschewing the first two approaches means admitting that we have no such obligation.

We can kill animals for food without adding to the total net suffering in the animal kingdom, and this is morally okay.