Professor Steven Best, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas, El Paso, incendiary Animal Rights/Liberationist persona, self-appointed "Press Officer" for ALPO (Animal Liberation Press Office — ALPO's raison d'être is to report and explain the "direct actions" of the terrorist Animal Liberation Front), defender of Dr. Jerry Vlasak's notion that assassinating scientists and other evil-doers is morally acceptable (link, link, link), and outspoken proponent of the "Me First" ethic has written an essay with a title that is both pretensious and defensive: My Dog or Your Child? Ethical Dilemmas and the Hierarchy of Moral Value. I urge you to read it. It is revealing in the extreme.
And please note two things: first, though I urge my readers to read his posts and to make up their own minds, he chooses not to invite his readers to read mine, much less to think for themselves.
Second, note that in spite of the length of his post and all its convolutions, he doesn't address my criticisms of his premises (see below) — indeed, those are the same premises that underly the entire AR religion. So while Professor Best explains in great detail which dogs he'd save and why he'd do so, he has failed to create a moral justification for his decisions other than "in my opinion." Thus, his ethic remains as I described it: a "Me First!" ethic, or as Herbert Marcuse might have suggested, an ethic of "primary narcissim".
On to cases.
You will recall that, when asked if he were able to rescue only one — his dog or a human stranger — from a burning house, Professor Best replied that he'd save his dog, because it gave him pleasure. As I've pointed out before:
What Dr. Best is saying is that the personal pleasure his dog brings him trumps the value of your mother, your child, your spouse, your sibling, and he'd rather see any one of them burned to a crisp than lose his dog. Assuming, of course, that they haven't had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Best and impressing on him that they are every bit as worthy as is his dog.
I expanded on this point in a post entitled: Steven Best: His Me First Ethic:
So — no being is more valuable than another — Dr. Best's (spayed or neutered?) dog and your child are equally valuable.
If humans and dogs are equal, and "that" a life is saved is more important than "which" life is saved, Dr. Best is free to make his lifesaving decision on the basis of whatever whim tickles his tofu fancy. And since his dog brings him pleasure and your child does not, his dog becomes more valuable to him. Hence his decision in its favor.
Prof. Best's ethic is the "me first" ethic — an ethic which doesn't require him to measure the consequences of his actions against anything other than what gives him personal pleasure.
It is the self-indulgence of the egocentric masquerading as a lofty moral principle.
Professor Best's present essay is intended as a defense against the fatal logic of his own making. The essay fails to justify why his decision to save his dog rather than your child from being roasted is a moral one, and his line of reasoning is roughly this: Animals have rights because they can suffer; the fact that animals have rights renders them as valuable as humans; the fact that they have rights imposes a moral responsibility on humans not to violate those rights; to preference a human over a non-human is an act of specism; therefore saving my dog is moral.
Yes, that's it in a nutshell. Professor Best never does come to grips with the premise underlying his assertions, or the implications of that premise:
Professor Best . . . (assumes) . . . as a self-evident moral truth the very concept which is itself in dispute: that animals have "rights." Professor Best then compounds his unsupported assumption by claiming that we humans are no less morally obliged to recognize and honor (the disputed) "animal rights" than we are to honor the rights of humans. To violate an animal's "rights" would be to commit the unpardonably unethical breach of committing "speciesism," he argues.
How do(es) Dr. Best . . . know that animals have rights? It seems to me that before they [Best and Vlasak . . . ed] justify the ethics of violence, up to and including murder, and before one of them openly advocates the practice, they have a burden to make a compelling case that animals do, in fact, have rights.
I've made this point before, but I'll make it again: such "rights" must either be the product of a supernatural agent, or a product of the mind of humans. If the product of a supernatural agent, which one of them has communicated with Professor Best and Dr. Vlasak, and what proof can they offer skeptics that such communication happened?
If "rights" — be they animal or other — are the product of the human mind, they must be based on criteria defined by humans. Why should the criteria favored by Dr. Vlasak and Professor Best trump the criteria favored by the Catholic Church, the Communist Party, the KKK or — indeed — criteria favored by you, me or your aunt Matilda? For example, why is the capacity to suffer pain from pin-prick of greater moral relevance than simply being a human, or having the uniquely human capacity to suffer by anticipating the realization of an awful future event from having read about it on an ALF website?
Beyond this, Profesor Best continues to conflate "we can" with "we should," a practice that further undermines his entire thesis.
We are deafened by Professor Best's silence on these matters, but his voice rings loud and clear when he reaffirms his commitment to his "Me First" ethic:
If the dog is my dog and the human is a total stranger to me, I will in every case save my dog. To me, this is obvious, axiomatic, de rigeur, and uncontroversial, something that even most speciesists and certainly “animal lovers” would do.
Here's his rationalization:
If a person can only save one life, it is natural and intuitive to choose – understanding this still is only a very general principle which might change under different conditions – someone who is relatively “near” over someone relatively “far.” I shall call this the existential proximity principle. . . .
Notice the term "someone." To Professor Best, an animal is a person — or as valuable as a person— and once again, Professor Best assumes as a self-evident truth something which is itself disputed: that animals are "persons" (sheesh . . .). That is a disputed point, and asserting that "personhood" should devolve on the basis of criteria he favors — as opposed to criteria I favor, you favor, the Pope favors, or Kim Jung Il favors — is a non-starter.
(1) If the existential proximity principle generally holds; and
(2) People frequently relate to their dogs, cats, and other “domestic” animals as family members; then
(3) It follows that it is perfectly acceptable and natural to save one’s own dog (or cat, rabbit, etc.) over a stranger
In my untrained, amateur opinion, Professor Best is projecting: he can't conceive that (normal) people may refer to their pets as "members of their families" in figurative terms, rather than his own concrete terms, and "projects" his own system of "morality" — that animals and humans are equally valuable — onto others.
In short, Professor Best is assuming as a self-evident moral truth that which is itself the fundamental dispute: that animals and humans are equally valuable, and then he compounds his error by suggesting that everybody knows it!
When Professor Best is challenged to defend why his criteria for "rights" and "personhood" should trump the criteria of other moral/ideological frameworks, he needs to address the issues raised, not ignore them as if they do not exist.
Unless Professor Best wishes to annoy rather than persuade, he must do more than offer as a rejoinder only repeated assertions of the disputed point — repetition, heat and volume don't cut it. And Professor Best should not conflate what can be done with what should be done . . . a distinction with a major difference, but one he seems unable or unwilling to understand . . .
Now — having created a false moral dilemma by assuming his as-yet unproved assertion that animals and humans are equally valuable, Professor Best then conflates his faux dilemma with a real one:
But now what if one had to choose between two human family members. Would you save your mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, father or son, mother or sister? Who would you choose and why?
Which is an entirely different problem, an honest-to-gosh real moral dilemma: how do you choose between two human beings, particularly two that are near and dear to you?
Professor Best seems to be under the delusion that because some situations present genuine moral dilemmas, all do.
The absurdity of his position is apparent: what if you could only save a potted plant or a child from a burning building, but not both?
This becomes a moral dilemma if we change the premise of what confers moral worth from "capacity to suffer" to "being alive." Professor Best needs to defend not just that one can base a system of morality on the capacity to suffer, but that the capacity to suffer should trump other criteria that could instead be used.
There is one final, very revealing point.
Somewhere, deep within the bowels of his essay, Professor Best claims that he'd willingly give his life to save an endangered species — proof to himself, one suspects, that he's a good person and proof positive to others, he hopes, that he is not egocentric.
First, we have only his word that he'd be so self-sacrificing, a word that isn't entiely trustworthy (consider this, the first point).
But even if he is willing to die to save an endangered species, is that proof that he isn't egocentric? I think not. In fact, Professor Best has created a classical logical error — a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
The structure of the error is this:
A, then B.
B, therefore A
In less formal terms:
All the Ford company makes is cars.
I see a car, therefore it was made by Ford.
In the end, who can possibly know what motivates Professor Best?
Professor Best might well give his life to save an endangered species. But how are we to know that he did so unselfishly? It is entirely conceivable that an egocentric, narcissistic person would martyr himself in the hopes of cementing his legacy within the AR community, rather than sacrifice himself out of pure selflessness to protect the animals themselves.
But I weary of the Professor and his lengthy essay, and until Professor can make a case for his premises being valid — and it his burden to do so, not mine to prove them invalid — then any defense of his "Me First" ethic is no defense at all. Repetition and sheer volume are poor substitutes for a structured case.
Still, I urge you to read Professor Best's essay, and decide for yourself whether or not he has failed to show that his "Me First" ethic is anything more than personal narcissism.
If you choose to read his essay, notice the invocation of Tom Regan and Peter Singer as if they are infallible authorities. Notice Professor Best's mood swings (really quite startling!) ranging through rage, bravado, to victim, to philosophical to something approaching tranquility. Notice the meanderings. Notice the ad hominem attacks. Notice the parsing. Notice the defiance. And notice how erratic the essay is . . .
One is almost compelled, at least temporarily, to pity what appears to be a tormented and confused Professor Best . . . .
Finally, I await with interest Professor Best's next post, in which I fully expect him to demonize Ingrid Newkirk and PeTA for having killed upwards of 10,000 helpless animals (link, link) between the years 1998 — 2003.
Or — is PeTA's killing of these unfortunates unworthy of Professor Best's moral outrage?
UPDATE: 5/11/05 5:30 PDT Reader Andy L. points out that in his essay, Professor Best has this to say:
When asked the burning house question again in the future, I think I will simply reply, "When I am in a burning house and have to choose between an animal and a human, I will let you know what I do. In the meantime, I have some serious ethical choices to make every day."
The eagle-eyed Andy notes:
He implicitly admits his everyday "serious ethical choices" are not informed by theory. Yup, they're just his opinion.
Wow! And Ouch! Isn't that an astute observation!
Game. Set. Match . . .