Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teaching Ethics and Animals?

The past few days in my intro to ethics class we have been discussing ethics and animals. In defense of animals, we read Singer's widely reprinted essay "All Animals Are Equal" and a short paper called "Reasonable Humans and Animals". We first think about the fur industry, and then think about animal agriculture and then I have them think about the relations between the two in a paper.

In response, and in some defense of common views about animals, we read a page by Kant on why we have no obligations to animals (and non-"self-conscious" beings in general, apparently) and something by Tibor Machan on why animals don't have "rights," as well as a sheet of at least 50 objections or responses to arguments in defense of animals that I have compiled. If I had more time, I would try to find more things in defense of the status quo and/or or critical of arguments in defense of animals.

While some of my students enjoy this topic and find it important and meaningful, typically, however, at least some students are not so happy about this discussion. This is, I suspect, because I try to get them to really see what's going on with the Singer and Simmons' arguments and force them to carefully examine the various critical objections and responses, i.e., think them through with care to figure out if they really hold up to a bit of critical thinking.

So my questions are these:
  • What, if anything, can be done to avoid or lessen these of (negative, unengaging) responses? Perhaps there are people who teach these topics but don't have, or rarely have, these kinds of reactions, i..e, they typically have better responses than what I often get, at least with some groups of students. If there are such people, how do they do it?
  • What sort of methods, approaches, and attitudes are best for trying to get students to productively engage these issues?
  • What are the best readings or resources to present in defense of the status quo, common views, etc.?
I can add that I think many of my students' ability to engage with the issue improve over the few class meetings we use for these issues. Hopefully they are spending some time to process the issue on their own and their quality of thinking improves as a result.


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  2. I run into this when I teach applied ethical issues in my ethics course that is primarily devoted to normative ethics and metaethics. I choose timely and important topics, e.g., torture, animals, etc. and at least some of the students are wholly underwhelmed by the topic or discussion. My best guess is that this is an issue about moral motivation. This is a special problem with teaching Singer in particular. They can rehearse and understand the arguments in detail but they nevertheless find themselves unpersuaded in the sense that they themselves recognize that they won't behave any differently than they do and that this indicates that they haven't really changed what they believe. This can be a really alienating experience even for the best philosophy students. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to get the issue right out there in the open. There's lots of interesting stuff to teach about demandingness and moral motivation, or even larger issues about whether and to what degree philosophy can change our most fundamental attitudes (think here of the conclusion of the first book of Hume's Treatise).

  3. I've run into this problem as well. I've got a few of strategies that have helped me, but I'd love to hear from others. I still run into this too often, with faculty as well as students.

    The first, I take a cue from Peter Singer's Practical Ethics. I cash in on the students' interest in abortion and euthanasia to get them to think about the related problem of the moral status of animals by putting all of these subjects into the last section of the class. Student are required to formulate a consistent view across all three issues which usually forces them to modify the views they came into class with. We only read two articles on animals (see below) but we keep coming back to them as we focus on the other issues.

    Second, I use Sterba's Morality in Practice. He includes Singer's "All Animals are Equal" and Michael Pollan's "An Animal's Place." (Google it and you can get it for free). Pollan doesn't deny that we have obligations to animals and I think this helps. Few students claim we have no obligations. Pollan's article is a compelling read, but the argument is difficult to untangle. The process of sorting the bizarre (he implies that a well-treated chicken forgives the person who slits it's throat) and ethically relevant (a form of humane meat production might be better for the animals involved than the alternatives) helps the students sort through their views on animals, something most hadn't thought about before. In particular, Pollan's claims that eating meat is natural and animal rights are unnatural makes a nice tie back to my class's previous discussion of homosexuality. Pollan's article is written as a response to Singer-- right down to the title which seems to imply that Pollan grants a parallel between sexism, racism, and speciesism. Together, they've worked well for me.

    Finally, I make sure to briefly raise the issue earlier in the class to get students thinking. When we talk about wealth and poverty, Sterba notes that meat production wastes resources. We briefly discuss that. I use hunting as an example of masculine behavior in the sexual equality section. The key here seems to be to make the point rather quickly and move on. I think the students need time to digest these points, to start questioning their food choices on their own, before they'll be open to Singer's arguments.

    Overall, I try to keep in mind that Singer hits them pretty hard by non-philosophical conversational standards. He accuses them of something like the worst sorts of racism and sexism. I suspect he sounds to them like someone who thinks that 9-11 was an inside job. You don't get past the conclusion to even listen to the argument.

  4. This is a great post, along with the comments, esp. Chris's.

    Here's a dilemma that I have as a teacher, which makes me hesitant about including arguments for and against meat-eating in the syllabus. To begin with, I find the arguments against eating meat convincing, esp. given factory farming. So when I was a non-vegetarian I was reluctant to teach it, because of my own hypocrisy. And when I became vegetarian just so that I can teach it, I found that in grading the papers I was ever-so-slightly biased against non-vegetarian arguments (or at least feared that I might be). These two horns of the dilemma, hypocrisy and partiality, makes this a hard topic to teach.

  5. I'm curious, anon, why you think hypocrisy or bias is a bigger problem here than elsewhere. I've got opinions about affirmative action, the existence of God, or any other issue. I ask because I share the feeling even though I can't make sense of it.

  6. Chris,

    It's true that we have personal opinions on many of the topics we teach. So I suppose you are right to note that we can face similar problems in other topics as well.

    Nevertheless, I somehow feel that the dilemma between hypocrisy and bias is especially severe in applied ethics, especially with arguments which we can apply to our personal lives, if we find those arguments convincing. Not all topics in applied ethics has this effect on me. Since I am not a woman, I can approach the debate on abortion dispassionately. Since I am not a policy-maker, I can approach the the topic of affirmative action with some dispassion as well. This is so even though I have definite opinions on both issues.

    But to know that I as a consumer am part of a causal chain that leads to the suffering of animals in factory farms has a different, and more personal effect. Since this is a matter of daily consumption, and my own consumption of meat is something entirely within my control, Singer's arguments affect me on a personal level (it's the same with his famine article). So my former hypocrisy and weakness of will (if I believe Singer's arguments right) are deeply and personally troubling.

    Here's a strange thing. Once I had fully committed myself to vegetarianism, I felt enraged when grading the papers of students who defended eating meat (esp. if they give poor arguments, or use weakness of will as an excuse). I feel the same rage about my own hypocrisy or weakness of will in the past. It's the same kind of rage I feel when I see people throwing away paper or plastic bottles they could easily recycle. In general, I guess, one feels this sort of rage when one sees others doing something wrong out of simple lack of consideration or effort.

  7. Returning a little to Nathan's post, it seems to me that one source of student's disengagement might be that they (i.e., the students who deny that animals have moral standing) sense the burden of proof shifting in their direction, and I'd worry that 50 (!) objections on their behalf is overwhelming and makes it seem like the position they favor is really desperate. Are there really 50 anti-animals rights arguments - or a few re-packaged in different ways?

    And for what it's worth, I think Rolston has some provocative views on the matter (that the animals we use for food are more artifacts than natural organisms, that meat eating is an ecological question, etc.)

    As to Anon's points: Is there an argument here simply not to teach ethics and animals if you feel strongly about it? Definitions of philosophy vary, but at least some definitions state that philosophy deals in questions about which reasonable people may disagree. If you feel strongly enough about some philosophical question -- strong enough that you don't see any basis for reasonable disagreement-- then you may find yourself unable to convey to your students a sense of the reasonable disagreement surrounding the question. In that case, it strikes me that maybe you've left yourself with nothing philosophical to teach them.


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