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Lewis Petrinovich, Cambridge, Mass, London, England, MIT Press, 1999, ix + 431 pages, £31.50 (hc).
This book by a distinguished American psychologist is the “third in a trilogy that applies evolutionary principles to understand the nature of human morality” (page vii). This reviewer has not read the previous two volumes, and his grasp of the content of this one may suffer as a result.
The present volume contains two parts. Part One provides a background to the main discussion, with chapters on human evolution, the affinities and contrasts between human and non-human primate societies, human and non-human cognition etc. Part two discusses the moral status of animals on this basis, with special reference to the morality of animal experimentation, though agriculture, zoos etc are also discussed. The general conclusion is that, while we certainly have duties to animals we rightly privilege human interests in ways which animal right-ists and liberationists say that we should not, chief examples being Peter Singer and Tom Regan. These and kindred thinkers are criticised for their attempt to provide a rational case for ethical positions which in fact rest on their own minority emotional responses respectively to humans and animals.
Petrinovich's own view is that what is criticised as speciesism is eminently defensible. “It is the special relationships among members of a given species, such as within kinship lines and community circles, that form and regulate what I refer to as the biologically supported social contract that grounds morality” (page 220). Thus morality rests upon, or at least is supported by, our feelings towards fellow human beings, as opposed to animals, which are explicable by the processes of natural selection which have made the human species what it is. Consequently the attempt to bring animals into the same moral circle is simply untrue to the basis of morality. This biological approach to ethics is modified, however, by a strong element of preference utilitarianism in Petrinovich's outlook.
The author makes some good points against the moral assimilation of “speciesism” and racism. In particular, he points out that its species determines an individual's most basic needs as race, among humans, does not (page 225). He suggests also that on a strict definition of slavery, as denoting the possession of one individual by another as his or her property, pets and guide dogs are as much slaves as are farm or laboratory animals, yet few condemn the keeping of the former (page 228). (However, slavery standardly involves compulsory unpaid work—a condition certainly unknown to my cats!)
Petrinovich uses his ethical theory to argue in favour of much of what anti-vivisectionists condemn while endorsing the principle of the three Rs. (Incidentally, it is misleading to regard killing animals as vivisection—the proper expansion of the word's literal meaning is scientific work causing pain to animals, and it is primarily this which the anti-vivisectionist opposes. See page 294.) In claiming that the most painful procedures on animals belong to the past, he fails to note that this is the result partly of the campaigns by anti-vivisectionists who are the target of his criticism (page 322). Interestingly, he is quite sympathetic to the case for vegetarianism.
The attempt to derive ethics from evolutionary theory figures largely in the first analysis of the “naturalistic fallacy” by G E Moore (1903). The author occasionally insists that this fallacy (of deducing moral judgments from merely factual statements) is not being committed in some particular argument, but surely often commits it, not only by appeals to facts of evolution, but also in supporting his ethical outlook by appeals to actual majority human emotions and opinions (page 196, page 256). (Of course, not every thinker accepts that there is such a fallacy.)
Petrinovich is not insensitive to the concerns of moderate animal advocates; however, he is concerned to defend much by way of animal research which this anti-vivisectionist reviewer condemns. This is mainly because, whatever the faults in the notion of speciesism, there is one crucial similarity between humans and at least “higher” animals (for example mammals and birds) and that is their shared capacity for pain and pleasure. This is more fundamental, I suggest, even for intra-human ethics, than “the evolutionarily mandated social contract” (page 56) on which Petrinovich would base it.
The book is thorough in its discussion of a wide range of views. A few rather odd statements are presumably slips on the keyboard (page 177). That it is a serious and well-intentioned discussion of the issues must be admitted even by those who reject much of its argument and conclusions.
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