Jeff McMahan – The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals


(applause) Adrienne Asch: I guess my questions come, in some ways just after… related to the last two comments especially, but … Jeff, I have a real …, this is not a rhetorical question. Why … what is the purpose of this effort? If it’s not the ethics of exclusion, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s a fair question to say why human beings and animals count, and in what ways do they count? And maybe we should be making differentiations, or maybe we shouldn’t. And like the previous speaker, as a carnivore, I had better think damn hard about why I am one and I don’t think I’ve got a good answer. And thank you to Peter Singer and a lot of other people for making me think about that. I don’t think we should be wantonly killing squirrels, and I don’t think we should be wantonly killing humans. And the real question of our work should be, why can’t we figure out a way to have human beings and animals live the best lives they can, with their particular kinds of endowments, born into the societies they are born into. I don’t want species membership, or coming out of a mother’s body, or being genetically related to a particular father to justify why we have to care about human beings. But I do want to know what are you trying to do in this project that doesn’t lead to the ethics of exclusion. Jeff McMahan: My guess is that there are a lot of politically liberal people in this room, who appreciated the picture of George Bush, and so on. A lot of people in this room who are sympathetic to feminism, and so on. Is abortion part of an ethics of exclusion? Sure looks like it to me. That’s a pretty radical form of exclusion, isn’t it? Well, to answer Adrienne’s question, the way I ultimately got into all of this, and the reason I raise questions about moral status, the purpose of this effort, to repeat Adrienne’s phrase, in my case came from a concern with the morality of abortion. I really wanted to know. And I have thought about that for a couple of decades. And when you think about the moral status of a fetus, you have to confront these questions, you have to ask yourself: What is it that people find in a human fetus, that they don’t find in an animal, that makes a lot of people in our society think that the abortion of an early term fetus is murder, and the killing of a chimpanzee, or an ape, or any kind of animal is absolutely nothing? Most of you … people are saying that they are carnivores here. Everybody is sort of confessing that, as if that’s an okay thing to say. Well look. You’re telling Peter and me that you actually eat these beings, that are sensitive beings, that have sociality, that care about their own young in exactly the way that you do. One of the questioners said, “We’re just finding out all kinds of things about the capacities of the cognitively disabled. In 50 years, you may not be able to find them.” Well, I will tell you something that you may not know. And that is that they are finding exactly the same things about non- human animals. But we don’t bother to do very much investigation there in the way that we do about those to whom we are related. But if you looked you would find a hell of a lot more than I think people find there now, and you wouldn’t be so complacent about announcing that you eat the bodies of these sensitive creatures. Adrienne Asch: I’m not complacent.

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