Richard Posner on animal rights

In an email exchange a number of years ago, the famous philosopher Peter Singer engaged Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner in a debate about animal rights. Singer took the position that we should not discount the suffering of animals just because they belong to a different species. Posner disagreed. Although I was unfamiliar with Posner prior to reading these emails, I had heard good things about him from David Friedman, so I assumed he was sharp as a tack.

I was very disappointed with Posner’s arguments. It is difficult to take Posner seriously in a few of the emails he sent to Singer. I have pulled a few paragraphs from the exchange and have provided my own commentary below them.

Posner: You [Singer] assume the existence of the universe-wide community of pain and demand reasons why the boundary of our concern should be drawn any more narrowly. I start from the bottom up, with the brute fact that we, like other animals, prefer our own—our own family, the “pack” that we happen to run with…

Posner is describing what evolutionary biologists call kin selection, which is altruism we direct at organisms that share our genes. I think Posner is correct to take into account the biological factors that affect our attitude about other creatures. It is unrealistic to assume humans can be totally free from their instincts when thinking about ethics. While we should try to overcome these ingrained biases, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about their existence.

Well, that isn’t what Posner thinks. In fact, he sees nothing wrong with this pack mentality.

Posner: Americans have distinctly less feeling for the pains and pleasures of foreigners than of other Americans and even less for most of the nonhuman animals that we share the world with…Now you may reply that these are just facts about human nature; that they have no normative significance. But they do.

Huh? Nazis don’t care about the pains and pleasures of Jews. Does that have normative significance?

Posner gives us an example of what he means:

Posner: Suppose a dog menaced a human infant and the only way to prevent the dog from biting the infant was to inflict severe pain on the dog—more pain, in fact, than the bite would inflict on the infant. You would have to say, let the dog bite (for “if an animal feels pain, the pain matters as much as it does when a human feels pain,” provided the pain is as great). But any normal person (and not merely the infant’s parents!), including a philosopher when he is not self-consciously engaged in philosophizing, would say that it would be monstrous to spare the dog, even though to do so would minimize the sum of pain in the world.

The implication is that in a world run by utilitarians, dogs would be permitted to go around biting babies. Posner thinks this idea is horrific, and if it is a logical extension of utilitarianism, we must reject utilitarianism. But Posner stipulates something that is almost certainly false: that the bite would cause less harm than preventing the dog from biting.

If a dog is about to bite an infant, why would you assume the dog is only going to inflict minor pain on the infant? Isn’t there some chance the dog may seriously injure the child or even kill it? Given that dogs have been known to harm small children, a utilitarian could be perfectly justified in severely hurting a dog that was about to bite an infant if that was the only way to avoid the bite.

Of course, if you stipulate that X causes more suffering than Y, then Y is to be preferred. But if your example has assumptions that clearly do not reflect the real world, then the example’s conclusions have no implications for the real world and they are not a good reason to reject utilitarianism.

What if a pinprick to a dog caused 100 times more suffering than murdering a human? Then we’re probably not talking about dogs and humans on planet Earth.

Posner: And if, for example, we could agree that although a normal human being’s life is more valuable than a normal chimpanzee’s life, it is only 100 times more valuable, you would have to concede than if a person had to choose between killing one human being and 101 chimpanzees, he should kill the human being.

Posner is suggesting that Singer is a moral monster because he would rather save the 101 chimpanzees over the human. But look at what Posner wrote earlier in that same email:

Posner: I agree, for example, that human beings are not infinitely superior to or infinitely more valuable than other animals; indeed, I am prepared to drop “infinitely.”

Posner thinks a human is clearly worth more than 101 chimpanzees. But he acknowledges that human beings are not infinitely more valuable than chimpanzees. Doesn’t that mean that he would be willing to sacrifice a human life to save some number of chimpanzees?

Throughout the exchange, Posner accuses Singer of being an off-the-wall radical, and that the people who read his book Animal Liberation don’t fully comprehend how extreme his positions are.

Posner: You say that some readers of Animal Liberation have been persuaded by the ethical arguments in the book, and not just by the facts and the pictures. But if so, it is probably so only because these readers do not realize the radicalism of the ethical vision that powers your view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees.

Is Singer really alone in thinking that some animal concerns take precedence over some human concerns? The answer is no, Singer is not alone. In fact, we don’t have to look at unrealistic hypotheticals where we choose between killing humans and chimps. We can look at the way modern human beings treat their pets.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are more than 72 million pet dogs and nearly 82 million pet cats in the United States. The average pet owner spends $366 on their pets per year in veterinary expenses. While American pet owners collectively spend billions of dollars caring for their furry friends, 16,000 children in the world die every day from hunger-related causes. Millions of pet owners would sooner pamper Garfield and Odie than save their fellow human beings from starvation. And Posner thinks Singer’s (supposed) preference of 101 chimps over one human is grotesque?

The best is yet to come…

In his second letter to Singer, Posner blatantly contradicts himself.

Posner: Where I disagree with you [Singer] most profoundly is over the question of whether ethical argument either can or should affect how we feel about animals (or foreigners). My view is that ethical argument is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. You point out quite rightly that such instincts often are mistaken. But then the need is for pointing out the mistakes. In the 18th century it was a capital offense in some American states for a human being to have sexual intercourse with an animal. One of the grounds for this harsh punishment was a belief that such intercourse led to the birth of monsters. The belief was unsound, and showing that it was unsound undermined the case for punishment.

To the extent that lack of consideration for animal suffering is rooted in factual errors, pointing out those errors can change our intuitions concerning the consideration that we owe animals. (my italics)

What would Singer have to do to change Posner’s mind about animals? This is what Posner had to say about the dog-bites-baby example from before, where Posner recoils at the idea of allowing the dog to bite the infant.

Posner: I do not feel obliged to defend this reaction; it is a moral intuition deeper than any reason that could be given for it and impervious to any reason that you or anyone could give against it. Membership in the human species is not a “morally irrelevant fact,” as the race and sex of human beings has come to seem. If the moral irrelevance of humanity is what philosophy teaches, and so we have to choose between philosophy and the intuition that says that membership in the human species is morally relevant, then it is philosophy that will have to go.

Posner says that new facts about animal suffering can change our intuitions, and that what Singer needs to do is produce these facts. At the same time, he says that in the case of human versus animal welfare, his intuitions are so strong they are impervious to reason, and that he feels no need to defend this belief. How is Singer supposed to respond to that?

I understand that at some level of abstraction, we are unable to give logical arguments for our beliefs and actions. I believe that pleasure is better than pain. I don’t have an ethical argument for that. If you don’t share that belief, we probably can’t get anywhere arguing with each other. However, Posner gives up way too early when he says that his preference for humans over non-humans is beyond rational examination. What would he say to someone who said their preference for the Aryan race was so deeply held that it was impervious to reasoned argument? Does Posner think arguments about ethics are ipso facto completely useless? If so, why is he wasting his time with this debate?

[Editor’s Note: I received an email of the best animal welfare websites, and was asked to publish it on my blog. For those interested, the websites can be found here.]


8 Responses to “Richard Posner on animal rights”

  1. The argument! « Says:

    […] Richard Posner on animal rights « Andy Hallman's Blog […]

  2. AT Says:

    One human is worth 100 chimpanzees? I believe value judgments like these are always relative. Which means, someone could have the complete opposite perspective– 100 humans are worth 1 chimpanzee.

    I think most people would say they’d prefer to reduce pain in the world. So it would make sense to in some capacity reduce pain, not only for humans, but also for animals.

    The problem with arguments in utilitarianism concerning animal rights you’ll always run into problems of opinion. Even if you were just talking about humans. Are some humans worth more than others? haha

  3. Andy Hallman Says:

    One human is worth 100 chimpanzees? I believe value judgments like these are always relative. Which means, someone could have the complete opposite perspective– 100 humans are worth 1 chimpanzee.

    Someone could believe that, but what would their reason be?

    The problem with arguments in utilitarianism concerning animal rights you’ll always run into problems of opinion.

    I agree measuring utility is difficult, especially between species. Sure, we’re going to rely on our intuitions, but I think our intuitions can change after we’ve been presented with evidence or even upon thoughtful reflection.

    Even if you were just talking about humans. Are some humans worth more than others?

    I’d say no. Unless there are some unusual circumstances, my default attitude toward people is to value their lives equally.

  4. JIM Says:

    You think that there has to be a reason. It could just be his/her opinion.

    Or he/she might be a naturalist, and prefers a very small number of humans to: animal ratio. The more animals/nature to humans, the better. There are many people like this.

  5. Guest Says:

    Excellent critique. I just came across the Singer/Posner debate and found myself repeatedly asking, Does Posner really think that’s an argument? Is this the best one of our allegedly greatest legal minds can come up with?

  6. Milena Says:

    I ran across your critique through Google. Thank you. I’m writing a paper based on this debate. I have to extensively lay out the views of each person and then decide who I feel had the better argument and why. I knew that I agreed with Singer but I was having a very hard time articulating my thoughts into why. I didn’t understand a lot of the points Posner made and your critique helped me through that so that I could form my own thoughts and opinions.

  7. Andy Hallman Says:

    I’m glad this post was of service to you.

  8. Andy Hallman Says:

    I received this link in an email today and promised to post it on my blog.

    The link directs you to a list of the Top 45 animal advocacy blogs.

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