Column on Ideas Have Consequences

Ideas Have Consequences
Tibor R. Machan
My discipline, philosophy, is often lambasted for being too abstract, for
not dealing with concrete matters, for not being practical. Socrates took
a lot of flack for devoting much of his time to searching for fundamental
principles and definitions of prominent ideas, such as justice, truth, and
virtue. I’d be very rich if I had a buck for each time someone has told me
over the decades that philosophy is useless.
Perhaps this is simply the fallout of a common attitude. That is for
people to favor the significance of their line of work over and above all
others. A great many economists, I can personally testify, are good at
this–nothing is as relevant and pertinent to our lives as economics! Some
have even written for a book unabashedly titled “economic imperialism.”
But many sociologists, psychologists, biologists, and the rest exhibit
such chauvinism as well.
In recent weeks there has been evidence of the practical impact, mostly
for the worse, of certain philosophical ideas and the prestigious position
of those who propound them. I am talking about animal “rights” or
liberation champions, like the now world famous Princeton University
philosopher Peter Singer.
First, in Spain the government has declared that great apes have the
rights to life and liberty, rights that had been understood to belong only
to human beings. It isn’t immediately obvious how this legal declaration
is going to be implemented–do they have a lot of great apes in Spain? But
it probably will have an impact at zoos and circuses, as well as, and more
importantly, at medical research centers. And that, in turn, will very
likely pose impediments to certain activities, some vital to human well
being, others less so.
On this side of the Atlantic the animal rights/liberation doctrine has had
dire consequences and continues to be deadly for human beings. The New
York Times recently editorialized against making DDT available for
fighting malaria around the world, in part because some penguins in
Antarctica were found to have a little of it in their bodies. No, they
didn’t die of this, nor seem to have had any serious illness associated
with it but merely because there is that possibility, based on Rachel
Carson’s terribly influential 1964 book, Silent Spring! And admittedly
there is evidence that DDT has done harm to the eggs of some birds.
So what? Why shouldn’t some birds suffer, even die, in the effort to
improve the chances of human beings to survive certain deadly diseases?
Well, because, as animal rights/liberation advocates like Singer (and
another philosopher, Tom Regan), maintain, it would be to unjustly harm
these animals to permit DDT to be used to help human beings.
This misanthropic doctrine is widely promulgated in various publications,
including the most recent issue of Philosophy Now which has devoted most
of its pages to making the case for animal rights/liberation. Sadly, no
opponents to the doctrine were given space, although in fairness that’s
partly due to the simple fact that very few philosophers are on record
defending the use of animals for purposes of helping human beings even
with fatal medical problems such as malaria. It is estimated that millions
of Africans have died because of the influence of Rachel Carson and other
opponents of the medical use of DDT.
In much of moral philosophy or ethics it is taken as an article of faith,
though not much defended, that human beings ought to live lives of
self-sacrifice. As Singer put it, several years ago, “Animal Liberation
will require greater altruism on the part of mankind than any other
liberation movement, since animals are incapable of demanding it for
themselves, or of protesting against their exploitation by votes,
demonstration, or bombs.” So even though animals routinely kill and maim
fellow animals for their own benefit–albeit, as a matter of their hard
wired instincts, not from free choice–there is something lowly about
human beings making use of other animals for their own good. Why so?
Nothing much of an answer is given to that question–indeed, in Singer’s
case, it rests, ultimately, on his intuitions or, as I would call them,
sentiments. What is needed is a vigorous philosophical and related defense
of human life and flourishing, including human rights, and rejection of a
sadly widespread misanthropic outlook that goes nearly unopposed now in
the community of moral philosophers.
Tibor Machan is the author of Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield,

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