The Boston Atheists Meetup Group Message Board › Peter Singers Definition of Suffering

Peter Singers Definition of Suffering

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A former member
Post #: 55
Anyone caring to support Peter Singers positions should do it here. The claim has been made that he uses an idosyncratic defintion. According to someone here the pain and injury endured in voluntary conflict does not count as suffering. Thus a broken arm sustained in a cage match involves no suffering. I very much doubt he ever made such a ludicrous claim. How does this apply when two pet owners are walking their dogs and they get into a fight? Can the owners dismiss people who see the injuries because the dogs attacked each other of their own accord. Is it therefore now moral to stage combats between animals that are naturally agressive with one another? After all, if they decide to fight they must enjoy the pain involved. Last I checked a boxing match was not equivalent to a BDSM session. They are not their to show how much they enjoy being injured.

The claim is also made that there is some well known technical definition of suffering that philosphers commonly use that differs from common usage. This is nonsense. I read plenty of philosophy and have never run across such. Even if it were true that they do this it would be dishonest of Singer not to point this out in his popular articles. It would be like a physicist talking about charm quarks in relationship to etiquette. Which is an equivocation, one of the many deadly sins good philosophers are supposed to know about.
A former member
Post #: 56
I just watched part of a You Tube debate with D'Sousa in which Singer mocks a guy for claiming that animals are automatons that do not suffer. Singer's evidence that they suffer is that the make noises, "yelp, cry out, or whine". Exactly the evidence we hear in staged fights. Further evidence being the "tap out". Or, if you are not particualrly clueless any interview with most fighters about the subject. I very much doubt Singer has some written defintion that precludes an animal yelp, cry, or whine as evidence of suffering when made during the rutting season in a voluntary fight over females. In which case injuries and pain sustained during voluntary matches by animals (including humans) involve suffering (by Singer's definition).
A former member
Post #: 57
I can very quickly prove my claim that Ayn Rand is using a idiosyncratic definition of the word "selfish". Here is her definition:
http://aynrandlexicon...­
I think her definition is perverse. Which is why her statements about selfishness make no sense to the average listener. When she says, "selfishness is a virtue" in public the burden of communication is on her, not the listener. It is up to her, in every conversation, to point out that she is not using the common usage, nor any defintion in any dictionary. It is one thing to claim that people mislabel nonselfish acts as selfish, and quite another to claim selfishness is good. You don't just get to make up private definitions for words and use them publicly. What is especially ironic about Ayn Rand was that she was complaining about doublespeak with her doublespeak.

I made no claims that Singer is using a idosyncratic definition of the word "suffering". I am assuming he uses it as everyone else does. If not then the burden on him is to make that clear. It's not my job to clear up his inability to communicate properly.

I have read quite a few of his articles and I'm not the least bit impressed. Things he says that are true have been said before and his original arguments are shoddy. It's not like it isn't common knowledge that animals can suffer.
A former member
Post #: 60
Another thing about Singer is he talks like we don't extended any moral protections to animals, nor expect anything from them morally. He's arguing that we should do this in proportion to their intelligence and suffering, but we already doin large measure. You can't just go up to a chimp at the zoo and shoot it. If you were on a talk show with a young chimp decided you didn't like it and punched it then not only would everyone hate you but you'd end up in jail on animal abuse charges. We also expect animals to behave correctly to a certain extent. Which is why we have phrases like "bad dog" and "good dog". He seems to forget all this.
Paul G. Brown
PaulGBrown
San Jose, CA
Post #: 13
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Just a thought, Brian ...

Even by entering the lists under the colors you're flying ("but we already do in large measure"), you've kinda already bought into Singer's argument.

Singer doesn't contradict empirical facts about animals, their behavior, brain states, or the legal protections some of them are granted under human laws. A part of his argument is to point out, as you just did, that we protect some animals. Which begs the question, why not all?.

A large part of Singer's position on speceism is that we are picking and choosing animals and laws based on the utility they provide *us*, rather than any consideration of *their* interests. If it's wrong to slaughter pets, why isn't it wrong to slaughter pigs? A dog or a horse is at least as intelligent as a pig.

You can either consistently claim either ( a ) human beings are special so we get to pick and choose how we treat animals of other species (perhaps because the brute fact of our power over them justifies our decisions: kinda a Melian Dialogue with the critters, or because "God gave us dominion over the animals") or ( b ) there exists no moral justification for human hegemony (placing onus is on defenders of the status quo to justify their position) and therefore animals have utility interests on an equal footing with humans that we ought to observe. Choose door ( a ) and it's up to you to justify why laws against dog-fighting or chimp-punching are on the books but locking pigs into barrels for their entire lives is A-OK.

I read Animal Liberation and found its thesis compelling. Sadly, I'm enough of an Athenian to still enjoy bacon, keep backyard chickens and kill billions of Saccharomyces cerevisiae annually in my ongoing pursuit of the perfect ale.
A former member
Post #: 61
I fail to see how pointing out misrepresentations made by Singer about how we treat animals is "buying into his arguments". It's not my fault if he makes blanket statements that contradict his more reflective moments. We don't even agree on the basic facts here. Nor do I see how his agreeing with basic facts which I agree with can be interpreted as "buying into his arguments". Listening to him he even gets basic facts, and interpretations of facts wrong.

I'm on an IPad which sucks at scrolling. I understand that the above paragraph is lacking in specifics which I owe you. Feel free to request them if you don't accept those claims. i noticed these things reading various articles by him and listening to him in various debates.

I'm moving to a laptop so I can more easily scroll, and will not lose an text as the screen randomly resets when my signal gets weak.


A former member
Post #: 62
As and example of how I don't buy into Singer's arguments:

"For me what is crucial is, ah, that we share with them the capacity to suffer." - Singer
I totally disagree with this claim. He assumes this and then deduces that we must treat animals equally to humans on this basis.
This is not my position at all.

Singer doesn't contradict empirical facts about animals, their behavior, brain states, or the legal protections some of them are granted under human laws.
Sure he does. In the interview with Dawkins he is assuming that the ability to feel pain is correlated with intelligence. He claims the oyster feels little pain on this basis. We have no evidence of that, and in fact can find plenty of counter examples. There are highly intelligent people born with genetic defects that make them feel no pain whatsoever. Pain is a very primitive nervous system attribute. I see no evolutionary need to gear up the pain levels as animals evolve to have higher intelligence. So I have no idea why they make this assumption.

I accepted this as a kind of "science fact" as a kid, that frogs don't feel pain for example. I have come to change my mind on that. It is speculation. A kind of suffering that might expect to be correlated with intelligence is the ability to feel anxiety at complex situations. Pain isn't like that. Even fear is not something which will naturally be tied to intelligence. Some animals naturally fear humans and that is not because they are inherently more intelligent. It's because of a long association with humans, and natural selection. Animals that didn't fear humans ended up dead.

If suffering is the criteria, and if he is going to take this justificationalist stance, then he had damn well better be more careful than this.


"A part of his argument is to point out, as you just did, that we protect some animals."
Yeah, but we don't do it on the basis of how much pain they feel. So that runs against his arguments. It's not used as a crucial criteria as he claims. There are a whole host of reasons, traditions, etc. for doing so. Most of these traditions include the eating of animals. So one can get to a position of a kind of graduted respect without using his reasoning.

"Which begs the question, why not all?."
Well that's easy. Different animals serve different symbiotic roles for us. Some act to digest grass for us, and some to guard over our children. After they digest the grass we drink their milk, or eat them. Feeding dogs grass to get meat just isn't that efficient, and cows don't make good watch dogs.

"A large part of Singer's position on speceism is that we are picking and choosing animals and laws based on the utility they provide *us*, rather than any consideration of *their* interests."
So? That's only a problem if you buy into a whole list of his other assumptions like "For me what is crucial is, ah, that we share with them the capacity to suffer.", a quote from that Dawkins interview.

I don't think moral systems arise in the way he thinks they do. I think they are more akin to survival strategies shared in common by groups. I covered a small measure of his mistakes in my other discussion thread, like his mistaken assumption that the universe has a perspective. It doesn't.

Why would anyone expect a human to take the perspecitive of an animal, and what does it even mean to do so? At best we can pretend to do so. We simulate their perspective in our own minds. I discussed this further on the other discussion thread. From the perspective of many animals the best situation would be if humans were extinct.

"If it's wrong to slaughter pets, why isn't it wrong to slaughter pigs?"
First off, it is not categorically wrong to slaughter pets, nor is it categorically not wrong to slaugher pigs. In fact, pigs can be pets.
The word "wrong" is a simple label for a complex phenomena. Sometimes it id wrong to slaughter pets because of the human emotional attachments to them. Sometimes it is wrong to slaughter a pig that is not your pet because you don't own it (and for some farmer it might be his prized breeding stock).

Does it surprise you that people don't like to eat people or animals they have grown attached too. If you were in the Donner party and had to resort to canibalism and your wife died along with another fellows, wouldn't it be easier to eat the other fellows wife than your own. For me it would spoil my memories of her to remember that I resorted to eating her. Same goes for a pet dog.

It's a very impovershed notion of rationality that doesn't take our natures into account. My position is that reason is a tool we use to achieve our goals (which are actually based on inborn desires). If I feel attachment to my dog, then it is of course wrong for me to eat it, because it would cause me to feel bad. I don't like feeling bad. The same would probably be true if I had a pet pig.

"A dog or a horse is at least as intelligent as a pig."
So what? I don't eat animals based on how intelligent they are, or whether they have faces, or whatever the latest Vegan argument is. I eat them based on whether I like their meat, and other factors.

There are more complexities to this I will not address.

"You can either consistently claim either ( a ) human beings are special so we get to pick and choose how we treat animals of other species (perhaps because the brute fact of our power over them justifies our decisions: kinda a Melian Dialogue with the critters, or because "God gave us dominion over the animals") or ( b ) there exists no moral justification for human hegemony (placing onus is on defenders of the status quo to justify their position) and therefore animals have utility interests on an equal footing with humans that we ought to observe. Choose door ( a ) and it's up to you to justify why laws against dog-fighting or chimp-punching are on the books but locking pigs into barrels for their entire lives is A-OK."
False dichotomy. I don't have to pick a) or b). I can choose a whole array of other positions. I don't even have to take a justificationalist position as you seem to think I have too. Which is good because I'm not a justificationalist in the first place. I don't believe there is single (or a collection of) root justifications you can start at and then deduce all your reasons.

Your lack of imagination is no restriction on me.

Why these laws are on the books are an entirely different issue altogether. A question of political process more than ethics. They are often the result of a slew of competing and contradictory cultures, ethical systems, etc. Certainly no one created them according to my ethical beliefs. So I don't have to justify them at all. I didn't write them.

"I read Animal Liberation and found its thesis compelling."
Apparently­ not.

"Sadly, I'm enough of an Athenian to still enjoy bacon, keep backyard chickens and kill billions of Saccharomyces cerevisiae annually in my ongoing pursuit of the perfect ale."
See what I mean? :)

BTW, this was one long digression from the discussion. Is Singer using some idiosyncratic definition of suffering or not?
Paul G. Brown
PaulGBrown
San Jose, CA
Post #: 14
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Before you dismiss Singer, I think it's only fair that you first grasp the nettle of his argument. I fear, Brian, that because you're quick to dismiss his conclusions, you're not really engaging with his thought. So I'm not going to get into a point-by-point debate. It seems to me that it would be more useful to focus on some elements of your presentation. Not to sing Singer's praises. But hopefully at least to rescue your impression of him. He's an interesting thinker.

1.

To address your principle question; Singer's making a philosophical, utilitarian argument. The word "suffering", used in that context, has a formal, technical meaning derived from the common-sense use of the word. The common usage of suffering refers to a yes/no state. It applies to phenomenon like dogs beaten until they're savage enough to provide entertainment as pit-fighters or not-white-men denied equal rights to vote or own land. At any point in time, we're either suffering, or we're not. Under the technical meaning as used in utilitarian arguments, "suffering" is a relative metric. Today I am suffering less than yesterday because yesterday I had a headache. The average western woman's life today is lived with more "utility" (less "suffering") than her grand-mother due to advances in medical knowledge and changes in the law. Singer would argue that a pig living in a factory farm has less capacity to be piggy than one living in open fields and is therefore "suffering"--that is, is experiencing a relative dis-utility measured on a scale with neither beginning nor end.

One very easy way to asses degrees of suffering is to conduct a thought-experiment. Would you swap places with an other? Would you rather be a pig in a poke? Or a pig in clover? If you're at all curious, read up a bit on Utilitarian approaches to ethics; Mill, Hare, or even Singer's Practical Ethics.

Hope that clears up your question. Singer's utilitarianism uses "suffering" in a technical, not "idiosyncratic" way.

2.

Popularizing "speciesism" is Singer's best known contribution. But the shape of his argument in Animal Liberation was not especially novel. It might just as easily be applied to other -isms; sexism, racism, and (most awful of all) our societies enduring bigotry against gingers. Applying the framework of competing utility claims illuminates an enormous number of ethical dilemmas. Which brings me to this passage from your comment:

"I don't think moral systems arise in the way he thinks they do. I think they are more akin to survival strategies shared in common by groups."

Now, (how can I do this delicately?) have you noticed that this line of reasoning echoes the line deployed by white supremacists to justify racism? Their argument is that whites, as a group survival strategy, need to bond exclusively. From which it follows that it's morally OK to treat members of other races as though they were mere objects. A utilitarian would say that racists start with the assumption that the utility claims of people in their group are worth more than the claims of others.

Please understand Brian that in pointing this out I am absolutely NOT claiming that you're a racist, or than anyone who doesn't share Singer's conclusions is racist. You can make principled non-or-even-anti-utilitarian arguments against racism. It's just that, in this case, there are similarities in the shapes of their argument and yours.

There's a broader objection to your line of thinking than falls within the narrow utilitarian remit. Most ethical thinkers would say that even if it is true that groups of people or species share consistent survival strategies, it doesn't follow that this is a basis for how we ought to behave. It's hard to claim that violence and disease (for example) are morally acceptable simply because they "are". If you're interested in this kind of thinking, read up on the is / ought problem. From the fact that a thing--say, a group survival strategy, or cancer--exists (is), it doesn't follow that it's therefore automatically moral (ought).

3.

Which leads us to the "dichotomy". It's central to Singer's thought in Animal Liberation. And isn't "false". It's a logical, exclusive-or choice. You have two doors to choose from.

( a ) Human beings, as a species, have a "special" moral status that permits us (among other things) to treat animals in a way that maximizes our utility.

Or.

( b ) Human beings, as a species, have no "special" moral status, and therefore our utility has no more value than the utility of other species.

When you write things like "Different animals serve different symbiotic roles for us.", then it's clear you've picked door ( a ). Which is a fine choice. But then it begs the question. If the utility claims of other "animals" mean nothing (to you), why should your utility claims mean anything to members of other sub-groups of your own species? After all, all that matters is each sub-group's "survival strategy". Now let's conduct that thought experiment. Which world would you rather live in (assuming you're just a random individual)? A world where everyone respects each other's utility claims and we collaborate to maximize total utility? Or a world where we divide into mutually exclusive sub-groups who essentially predate on each other?

I'm not going to argue here for all of Singer's conclusions. He's perfectly capable of doing that himself. And he has advocates far less facile than myself. I'm only going to claim that he's interesting, and worthy of being taken seriously. Utilitarian arguments in support of certain ethical positions--treat members of other species as though they have utility claims of their own, treat members of other human sub-groups as though they have utility claims of their own--aren't easily dismissed.

And in a world without religious verities, these are debates worth having: playfully, respectfully and thoughtfully.


A former member
Post #: 63
First you accuse me of making Singer's arguments for him, and now you accuse me of making arguments similar to racists. At some point my patience is going to wear thin for this kind of discussion, despite all your up-front apologies. Perhaps it is best if you stop characterizing my arguments and addressing them. It smacks of ad hominem, except in this case you are picking on the nature of the arguments. I feel, ethically, like I'm being cheated.

I don’t mind if you point out an invalid way of reasoning and give examples of how this lead the Nazis, the KKK, or whoever to error. However, I have made no such error. So far my discussion has not at all delved into supporting any particular moral system. Singer’s moral system is just one of many competing systems, all of which evolve over time and none of which infallible. Of course they have differing qualities, but I have not addressed that issue so don’t presume to do my arguing for me.

Let’s get back to the topic of the definition of “suffering”.

” Singer's utilitarianism uses ‘suffering’ in a technical, not "idiosyncratic" way. “
Technical terms are idiosyncratic. Idiosyncratic means special to an individual or group. The way that suffering is being used by Singer, as you describe it, is idiosyncratic to utilitarians, or apparently modern, not historical ones. Which is why I wrote, “ Zachary had made the claim that Singer was using an idiosyncratic definition. I say modern, not historical, because my understanding is that they use the word “utility”.

In fact, you used “suffering” and “utility” interchangeably in your comment when you wrote:

“The average western woman's life today is lived with more ‘utility’ (less ‘suffering’) than her grand-mother”
Were you being sloppy? My understanding of utilitarianism (I studied philosophy in college) is that they’d never confuse the two. They would do a [silly] formula like (“Happiness”-“Suffering”) = “Utililty”, but “Suffering” is not equivalent to “Utility” even in their system.

If what you are saying is true, that “suffering” is a technical (idiosyncratic) term used by utilitarians then it confirms my worry that Singer is misusing the word in public, which can lead to equivocation. He never gives any kind of warning that he is using the word in this idiosyncratic way. I am familiar with utilitarianism and historical utilitarian reasoning. They have used the term "utility" in the way you mention, not "suffering". What utilitarians are trying to do is maximize utility, part of which is the minimization of suffering (in the common usage). People are aware of this definition and perhaps they should stick with it.

If what you say is true then, what I’m afraid has happened here is that utilitarians found that the word “utility” wasn’t a sexy enough word to sell their moral product to the public. Who cares about something as dry sounding as “utility”? When talking with the general public one needs to indicate when one is using technical terms so people are not mistaken about what is being said. Even the word utility has this problem. The problem is much worse with the word suffering.

The way you have described it one can say an animal is “needlessly suffering” if it is in a situation no one in their right mind would consider “suffering” in the normal sense of the word. For example, you say one good test of whether a being is suffering is "Would you swap places with another?", so let’s apply it. This would allow one to claim that all animals are suffering at all times, because I’m not about to swap places with any animal anywhere. This doesn’t help Zachary’s argument in the least. I also would not swap places with an MMA fighter or a boxer.

If this is Singer’s reasoning it is even worse than I thought. I’m probably going to have to buy his books to get a proper picture. I don’t think you are describing this correctly. Singer does seem to have a knack for carelessness in what he claims, so maybe he did do this, I don’t know. Do you have a quote?
A former member
Post #: 64
Brian:'I don't think moral systems arise in the way he thinks they do. I think they are more akin to survival strategies shared in common by groups.'
Now, (how can I do this delicately?) have you noticed that this line of reasoning echoes the line deployed by white supremacists to justify racism?
Actually, such thinking is quite in line with Dawkin’s views on memetics. He’s very fond of Singer’s views. How can I put this delicately? Perhaps Singer is the racist? Scary thought. [bug-a-BOO] smile

Seriously though, this is a description of reality. There are lots of competing moral systems (religions, political ideologies, ethical philosophies, etc). If racists make this claim then they are correct. If you dispute this then you are wrong. How does it feel to have those racists be on the correct side of a fact, while you are on the wrong side of that fact?

So don’t take it personally if I point out that you are worse than a racist on this. Also “Please understand”, Paul, “that in pointing this out I am absolutely NOT claiming that you're a racist”.

I hope you are having an “I see what you did there moment” and refrain from this behavior in the future. You knew it was wrong to do this when you wrote it as is evidenced by all your explicit caveats. Please don’t do it again. I know you eat animals despite your belief it is wrong, but please don’t do other things in this discussion that you sense are wrong.
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