A conversation with the NYU Professor of Environmental Studies, Philosophy and Law.
Dale Jamieson: My name is Dale Jamieson, I’m Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University and affiliated Professor of Law in the New York University Law School.
Question: Why should we care about animals?
Dale Jamieson:I think in a way, the main argument for why we should have moral concern for animals really comes from the failure of other arguments that are supposed to show that we should only be concerned about human beings. And the problem is that for almost any feature of humanity that you can name, whether it’s the ability to suffer, whether it’s the capacity to reason, whether it’s having lives that can go better or worse, there are at least some other non-human animals that have all of these features as well. So to exclude non-human animals from the range of moral concern but to include all humans, just seems morally arbitrary. And it was really that recognition that started to come to prominence with the publication of Peter Singer’s book, “Animal Liberation” but in fact had been in the literature really for centuries before that in the works of fairly obscure philosophers and people who are advocating social change but when the insight became prominent then really the field of animal ethics began to take off.
Question: What are some arguments against animal rights?
Dale Jamieson: That’s a really difficult question because an enormous body of literature has been produced since the publication of Singer’s book, “Animal Liberation” back in 1975 and most of the responses to this literature have been remarkably weak-kneed I must say. For example, people talk about the idea of special relationships, that is, the morality only really binds people who stand in some kind of contractual relationship with each other but in fact if you take that seriously as a criteria of when we have a moral relationship then it’s hard to see why we would have moral obligations to strangers for example or people who live across the sea from us but yet, every decent person believes that we do.
And in fact most of us do have special relationships with non-human animals. New Yorkers love their dogs and people who live in other places tend to have relationships with other kinds of animals as well. That’s just one example but I have to say that it’s really been a great failure that more compelling counter-arguments have been raised to the animal liberationist views. In fact, most of the interesting arguments that go on philosophically go on among people, all of whom believe that animals have a kind of moral standing and that we have moral obligations to animals but disagree about what exactly the philosophical basis is of that moral standing and exactly what our duties come to. That’s a much more lively discussion than from people who are just, in a broadsided way, critical of the whole concern with non-human animals.
Question: How are animal rights related to environmentalism?
Dale Jamieson: Well, one of the concerns, I think, about the animal rights movement from the beginning was this idea that people who cared about animals didn’t care about humans, didn’t care about nature, didn’t care about anything else. So there’s a kind of mindset that some people seemed to walk around with which seems to suppose that we can only be concerned about one thing at a time. It’s almost as if, if I care about my mother then I’m going to be mean to my father but of course, that isn’t really how things work psychologically.
It’s possible for us to care multiply about different things and different social issues and different social problems. And not only that, in some cases, some kinds of concern can lead us very naturally to be concerned with other things and so one of the things that I try to argue is that a concern for animals, for example, can really be an opening up and opening out into a broader concern for the environment because if you’re concerned with animals then surely you’re going to be concerned about where they live, about what the possibilities of their life prospects are in nature, about the integrity of natural systems and so on. So I think there’s a great deal of complementarity between being someone who’s concerned about animals and being an environmentalist.
Now, having said that, I also think people somehow have the idea that being an environmentalist or believing animals have rights is a little like some form of religion where there’s some creed that one subscribes to. It’s very simple, it’s just a matter of commitment and then one goes out and acts accordingly but in fact, there are many conflicts among environmentalists about what the best policy is about a whole range of different issues. And of course, there are many divisions among people who consider themselves animal activists so it’s not surprising that there are differences between environmentalists and animal rights’ people in some issues. But they’re really all on the same side of the broader issue which is about the redefinition of the human relationship to the rest of the natural world.
Question: How are animal rights derived from human rights?
Dale Jamieson: I think the first thing we all have to recognize is that we see the world with our own eyes and we hear it through our own ears and the world we live in is always going to be the world we experience and the world that we interpret. Now, that isn’t a problem, that’s a fact. A problem can enter when we figure out how to act on that so if you have someone who simply treats other people as if they’re only real in so far as they impinge on his senses, well, we have a name for that person, we call him a narcissist and we think that that’s a disorder.
And so even though we experience the world as individuals through our senses and our own consciousness, we still have this idea that there are independent other people out there who experience the world through their own senses and their own consciousness who are also worthy of respect. And once we can make that extension for other people, once we can get out of our narcissism and solipsism and see that there are other people who are as objectively real as we are, then I think it’s possible for us to make the same leap with respect to other animals, it’s not such a big leap for me to imagine that someone as unsympathetic to me as Dick Cheney is an independent center of consciousness who experiences the world in his own way and is worthy of moral respect, to imagine the same is true of grizzly bears, or of whales, or of other non-human forms of life.
Question: What did you think of Grizzly Man?
Dale Jamieson: Well, “Grizzly Man” is a really interesting film at multiple levels. It’s first of all a film about Treadwell, who himself is an extremely interesting person who has several different layers and levels of views in his relations to animals and to nature but then it’s also a film about Werner Herzog who has his own take, not just on Treadwell, but his own views about nature and about animals. Now Treadwell, on the one hand, is a remarkable person informing the relationships that he did form with grizzly bears.
Ecologists and ethnologists will spend decades in the field and really not develop relationships that are as strong and actually as informative as the relationships that Treadwell formed. At the same time, Treadwell, right? It’s Treadwell, Treadwell is really one of us in the sense that he’s a normal person who is projecting onto the animals, all of his own desires, his failures, his successes, who he wants to be. And so there’s a way in which Treadwell doesn’t really see the animals, he sees himself as reflected in the animals and that’s part of what makes the film interesting. What really makes it interesting is both of those things are going on in Treadwell, both he has a real connection to these animals of the very profound kind and also he’s using the animals to see a reflection of himself in the eye of the bear.
Question: Do you obey all the moral conclusions you have reached?
Dale Jamieson: I am very far from being the sort of person I think that I like to be, in many ways. Probably the thing that I do that is the least defensible is I fly too much in airplanes and there will come a time, I suppose, when we’ll feel the need to fly less than we do and still feel as though we can accomplish the things that we can accomplish.
There’ll come a time when airplanes are much more efficient when it comes to producing lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, there’ll come a time when we’ll be able to offset those emissions much more effectively than we do now. But alas at the moment, flying airplanes is really one of the least defensible things that we do and it’s one of the things that I indulge in quite frequently, alas.
Question: What is the measure of a good life?
Dale Jamieson: Well, one measure of a good life, I think, is to be engaged in projects that one thinks are meaningful and worthwhile. So I would put the emphasis of a good life on activity, on the walk rather than the destination, and I think that most of the things that any of us do that are really valuable and really important are projects that we really shouldn’t expect to be completed in our lifetime because if they could completed in our lifetime, they probably wouldn’t be so important that we should devote our lives to them.
Question: Why should human behavior be in tune with the environment?
Dale Jamieson: I think for me the argument really rests on a certain conception of what it is to be human. Now, other people have tried to argue that conceptions of rights and interests that I and others think apply to animals really extend further than that. There are people who argue, for example, that trees have rights or that we have moral duties that are directly owed to forest and to ecosystems and so on. I’m not persuaded of those arguments, I do think those arguments do apply to other non-human animals. I don’t think we’re special among animals in the kinds of interest and rights that we have.
But then the next question that really arises about our relationship to nature is what is it for animals like us to have good lives and to flourish and to have meaningful lives in the environments in which we evolve and in relation to the nature to which we’re so well-adapted. And there, I think, questions about what it means to respect nature become very important because just as in human society, for example, part of what it is for me to live a good life as a human being in a human society is to have respect for others around me. Now, that respect, to some extent, can be thought of as being grounded in the rights and interest of others but it also has to do with the stance that I take in the world and what it is that provides meaning and significance in my own life and I think there are similar ideas of respect for nature that apply as well. And that having a certain attitude towards nature is part of what it is for me to have a good life as a human being.
Question: Should environmentalism be economically justified?
Dale Jamieson: At some level, I’m not too concern with people’s motivations in the sense that if we can figure out how to live together with nature without blowing ourselves up and destroying nature, even if we all have different reasons about why that’s a bad thing I’ll take them. At the same time, there has become a kind of pervasive economistization of the rhetoric in American life. If we go back to the 16th or 17th Century, if we wanted to argue about family obligations, who had rights to cut down trees and forests, whether we should help the poor, all of these arguments would be made in religious terms. The common currency of the arguments would be the Bible, it would be some conception of God and so on. And even though we were talking about something entirely different, the touch stone of all these arguments would somehow have to be in terms of this common sense of religion that pervaded the society. I think increasingly, economic rhetoric has replaced religious rhetoric in our society so somehow we make all our arguments in economic terms.
If I want to argue, for example, that one of the great last wild places of the earth, the Patagonian region of Chile should not be damned, there proposals to build five huge tall dams in Patagonia now, and I say one reason we shouldn’t dam Patagonia is because it’s one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth, even environmentalists then will want me to say, “Well, how can we express that value in economic terms?” and we’ll try to make an argument to try to show that the economic benefits of the aesthetic value of Patagonia outweighs the merely consumptive value of producing electricity from those dams and that’s how we’ll make the case.
Well, as I said, in some way I don’t mind too much with people’s motivations are as long as we can get to some collectively livable outcome but there is a kind of debasement of our language and our rhetoric and our reasoning and the fact of the matter is, aesthetics do matter to us, morality matters to us, and sometimes we do things out of a sense of wonder, out of a sense of awe, out of a sense of rightness and out of a sense of beauty and we should be willing to discuss those considerations in their own terms and not think that somehow they have to be usually, in some entirely confabulated way reduced to dollars and cents, to have any role to play in the way we think about environmental issues. That disturbs me and that I feel very much opposed to.
Question: What’s the best argument for vegetarianism?
Dale Jamieson:It used to be that the case for vegetarianism was somewhat controversial because while it’s the case that factory farmed animals suffer enormously and while it’s the case that the conversion of grain to animal protein is extremely inefficient, there were things that people could say in the other side of these arguments.
So, for example, in response to factory farming, people would say as Michael Pollan still sometimes is given to saying, “Well, what if animals have happy lives. What if they’re not factory farmed? What if we can kill them painlessly?” When it comes to the inefficiency of the system, “Oh, what if we don’t eat so much meat and so on and so forth,” and those kinds of arguments do have some weight. But I think the mother of all arguments against eating meat now is the climate change argument. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and when we eat meat we wipe away many of the good things that we do when we try to create greener and more sustainable practices in the rest of our lives. So if you add the concern for climate change with other concerns that were there. I think the case for vegetarianism is pretty overwhelming.
Now, I must say that in my own mind, I think what’s important is for us, as a society, to radically reduce the consumption of meat. This is more important than some fraction of us become moral saints and become vegetarians so it would be much better if we would reduce meat consumption by three quarters of each of us as an individuals would only eat one-quarter as much meat as we do now then that half of the population should become vegetarian. We should see this as a collective challenge rather than an issue about individual, moral period.
Question: Do people make moral decisions using economic calculations?
Dale Jamieson: Well, my suspicion is that people are not really, at least in all cases, more motivated by economic concerns than other concerns. What I suspect is that people think they have to talk in economic terms, they have to provide economic justifications for things that they actually want to do for other sorts of considerations and I’ll give you a few examples of that, there’s really a bag of examples.
People did not go into the streets ultimately to overthrow communism in 1989 in Eastern Europe because they did some kind of benefit cost analysis and decided that the risk of being run over by a Soviet tank was somehow less than the benefit they might gain if there was a transition to a capitalist economy, they did this out of a sense of idealism, out of a sense of the dignity of individual people that was being trampled in these kinds of societies and out of a vision of what a better world could be.
They didn’t do it in economic terms. Similarly today in the last decade in American society, there are people who favor a policy, that I very much disagree with, that’s known as the war on drugs. The war on drugs is not an economically rational policy and even people who support the war on drugs would not argue for it in economic grounds, they argue for it on moral grounds, that’s it wrong for people to take drugs, it’s wrong for a society to send a message that it’s okay to do that. So I think generally, we do still often act out of non-economic motives, it’s just that like those people in the 16th Century somehow we think we need to defend those actions now on the basis of economics than on the basis of religion. I think one of the hopeful signs is that President Obama is beginning to bring back a richer and fuller and ultimately what I think is a more realistic and more human kind of rhetoric to our political debates.
Question: Is economic rationalism wrong about human nature?
Dale Jamieson: There are many issues in American public life that divide people in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways. So there are people, often people associated with the political right you say that we should only do things that makes sense economically and what is all this nonsense that environmentalists want to do to lock up wilderness areas and so on. But then when it comes to issues like outlawing drugs, outlawing abortion, a range of other issues, they’re the ones who are taking moral positions, they’re not taking hard-headed sort of Libertarian positions based on economic realities.
None of us are rational economic men as we’re supposed to be portrayed in economic theory where mixes of passions, of desires, of moral principles, of self-deception, of altruism, of concern of others, of concerns for ourselves and an interest in our bank accounts. And social policies have to be responsive to the complexity of who we are as people or else, like the war on drugs, they’re simply going to fail.
Question: Why do we privilege economic justifications for action?
Dale Jamieson: I think one reason we fetishize economics is because we have to come to think that it is essentially connected to wellbeing, about what it is to have a good life. And in fact, there’s very little psychological evidence for this being a very strong relationship. If you look at the works psychologists have done about individual reports of wellbeing, what happens is that if you’re poor, you are not happy.
But once you achieve a certain level of material satisfaction then income has very little correlation with people’s reported states of happiness, things like climate matter more, things like the culture of the country in which you’re raised matter more and so the things really, let’s face it, like individual temperament matter more than these things. And so once we see that economics is to a very great extent detached from what it is that really give us quality of life.
That can be a very liberating sort of insight because what that means is, and this may sound very unpopular at this moment, but an economic downturn with all of the damage and real damage that that creates may not make us as unhappy as we might imagine. And indeed, it might create opportunities for new ways of life, for new forms of happiness, for new ideas of quality of life that we simply would not have seen when we were in the world of getting richer and richer and richer and richer without any reflection whatsoever.
Now, the millennium development goals are important, both morally and economically, because much of the world’s population maybe is as much as a third of the world’s population hasn’t yet reached the level of economic development where we begin to get a dissociation from people’s economic status and their reports about personal happiness. So we really do need to do much more and much more effectively in order to give everyone the kind of basis for which they can have good vibes.
Question: How does philosophy relate to our everyday lives?
Dale Jamieson: I think there’s a popular misunderstanding about what ethics is and what philosophy is. The philosophers have actually done a lot to propagate, I think of philosophy as a process, I think it’s better. Philosophy is not a body of knowledge to impart to someone, that’s why reading philosophy books isn’t always the best way of learning philosophy.
Philosophy is really more the process of rational engagement, rational reflection with a diversity of views and ideas and opinions and trying to sort of reason your way through to a more reflective position. I think if you look at it that way, philosophizing is to some extent some small way a part of almost everyone’s lives although they don’t recognize it as such and a lot of people are embarrassed about it.
Question: What is embarrassing about philosophy?
Dale Jamieson:Depending on people’s family situations and what they do for a living and all of that in some parts of American society, the idea of asking questions is considered, in some way, a kind of disloyalty or a way of not really getting on with things in the way that we should be getting on with things. And I think we have to do more and not only to say that that is important, that that kind of dialogue is central really to even somewhat argue to the idea of America, the traditional idea of America.
But really, that’s what philosophy is, philosophy isn’t reading Emmanuel Kant. Philosophy is about thinking hard about what the right thing to do is in a situation and approaching that kind of question in an open-minded and open-hearted way, receptive to a broad range of considerations and interests of other people and other things.
Question: Is American individualism compatible with today’s global challenges?
Dale Jamieson: We tend to have very quick and often misleading associations with words like ethics and values and so on and so forth. And it reminds me of a story, many years ago when I worked at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1980, the first years of Reagan regime, we were interested in founding a center that would study social policy questions but would really be concerned with the kind of moral and ethical issues that really separate people when it comes to public decision making.
And so we started something that was called The Center for Values and Social Policy which seemed to us to be a completely apt description of the work that we wanted to do. Well, it turned out that almost everyone hated the name of the center and we were completely flummoxed by it and being a little slow in the uptake, we only later realized it was because Center, okay, for Values, well, that’s a right wing buzz term, right? It’s people on the political right who are concerned with Values, and Social Policy, Social Policy, that’s a buzz word that’s associated with the political left, the people who want to reengineer society and all that.
So almost no one could relate to a center that was interested in values and social policy. So going back to your question about ethics, it’s true that when we think about ethical behavior and moral behavior in American society, a kind of individualist bias immediately creeps in, we think of people as being individually responsible for doing the right thing, we even associate ideas of ethics and morality with, I think, questions of purity. Not to be smirched with wrong doing and so on and so forth but when we live in highly complex interconnected societies that are in some way have some reasonable semblance of democratic governance, often our moral obligations are political obligations and policy obligations and obligations to act.
If you’re interested in doing something about climate change as we all should be, all of us who care about future people and creatures that will inhabit this world. Then buying a Prius is a good thing but an even better thing would be to be on the streets demanding urgent action from the United States’ Congress.
Question: Can individual moral stances solve the challenges we face?
Dale Jamieson: So when to come to issues like not lying, not cheating, not betraying your friends, these really are questions of individual moral action and individual moral integrity and so on. All of your obligations can be taken up with how you, as an individual act towards other people. When you get into more complex issues like environmental issues, for example, individual action is not going to solve those problems. The United States, the world, are not going to stop emitting greenhouse gases because every individual person makes a moral commitment not to do that, people have children, they have jobs, they have other kinds of obligations, we are all implicated in a kind of economic and social structure that require these kinds of emissions, no matter how well-meaning we maybe.
So, much of the point of individual action is really to communicate with other people and with political leaders and to demonstrate to them that we are willing to live lives which are less dependent on fossil fuels and we’ll show you that now by changing our individual life to some extent but we want you to take action, political leaders, so that we aren’t living in a society in which we’re dependent on poisoning the future in order to maintain present lifestyles.
So I see a lot of individual action when it comes to environmental questions really as a form of politics as a way of communicating with political leaders, much in the same way that acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights’ movement were really acts of political communication, trying to get laws changed rather than based on the thought that the individual action would really change the practices of segregation.
Now, I think when it comes to climate change, the single most important thing in the world is for the United States’ Congress to pass an effective bill that will put a price in carbon because if it starts costing something to emit carbon, this will provide an incentive, people do act on the basis to some extent of economic incentives to emit fewer greenhouse gases. And the only way that’s going to happen, the only way, is if there is a very strong, very active popular movement that demands it and such a movement would be unparalleled because it would be a popular movement that says, “Raise our taxes so that we change our behavior.”
Now, the taxes can be refunded to people and other ways, there are ways of trying to take some of the sting out of it but it does require people to say that these issues about the future are so important to us, we’re willing to change it at present and we want those changes supported by political and legal changes.
Question: Are American ethical norms behind the times?
Dale Jamieson: Well, I think that our moral systems and to some extent our legal systems evolved when we lived in relatively low population, low density societies in which you could be a perfectly moral person as long as you didn’t go stealing your neighbor’s wife or clubbing your neighbor in the head with an axe or stealing her property or something like this, moral obligations, very simple, very straightforward and very individual and much of the law is really centered on those kinds of very simple biotic kinds of relationships but we now live in a very high density society in which we have technologies that actually increase our reach around the globe.
So if I drive my car to the store, those carbon molecules that are emitted actually get into the atmosphere circulation systems and affect climate in a global basis. This is shocking, this is amazing! No one in the 18th Century would have believed that anything like this were at all possible and I don’t think we have, as part of our common sense, morality, norms and values that are really responsive to those kinds of issues, to the kind of power that we now are able to exert over the future and over people who live very far from us.
And in a way, I think the challenge of climate change in particular is the challenge for us to create and produce new norms for a new kind of world. And that’s why I think as important as the issue of climate change is, it’s even more important than it seems because if we can’t evolve very quickly, new norms to deal with issues like climate change, we’re not going to be able to survive in the kind of world we’ve created. So I think, really, the whole nature of democracy, of governance, of global community and of solving the kinds of problems of the 21st Century are really at stake.