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Dogs and pigs have meaningful lives! – Philosopher Michael Hauskeller – Sentientism Episode 155

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism podcast and here on the Sentientism YouTube.

Michael is head of philosophy at the University of Liverpool. His current work spans transhumanism, death and meaning. He has written on whether non-human animals can have meaningful lives and What It Is Like to Be a Bot. He says of his work: “As a philosopher, I am a generalist, which is a nice way of saying that I have done many different things and I am not really an expert on anything in particular. Most people would probably tag me as an ethicist, but this is only true in a very broad sense. Figuring out what is right and what is wrong, permissible or impermissible, does not hold much interest for me. It seems to me that when people are debating these questions they are actually arguing about something else, namely who we want to be and in what kind of world we want to live. For me, doing philosophy is ultimately a sustained attempt to get to grips with this “deeply puzzling world” (to borrow an expression of Mary Midgley’s), to understand it and to understand our place in it. Philosophy is not business; it’s personal, more akin to therapy than to science. It’s about finding out what is actually going on and what we are doing here. Can philosophy provide an answer to these questions? I don’t know. All we can do is keep on trying. Perhaps what matters is not that we find an answer, but that we keep the question alive.”

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:42 Michael’s Intro

  • What it means to be human, to live a good life, a meaningful life
  • Transhumanism & human enhancement
  • Meaning & life & death
  • When dealing with foundational, broad questions: “It is very difficult to be precise… I hardly ever feel that ‘now I’ve got it'”

06:06 What’s Real?

  • “It’s much easier to point at something & disuss whether that is real”
  • “If you can name something then in some sense it must be real”
  • Raised #Christian & sent to Sunday school & Bible classes & regular confessions to the village priest
  • “I sort of believed there was a god when I was little”
  • A god watching me “a means of controlling me… Big Brother in heaven… it was just oppressive… a punishing god, a critical god”
  • “I didn’t feel the presence… I just believed that there was something because I was told there was something”
  • “Very quickly I dropped my religious beliefs… as soon as I started to think for myself I became an #atheist”
  • “It just faded away… it was always superficial”
  • “Some people take me for a Christian because I share some of the intuitions religious believers have”
  • “I’m not entirely comfortable with calling myself a naturalist although I don’t believe in anything supernatural”
  • “Naturalism is also very programmatic & ideological”
  • “There are a lot of things in this world that we cannot understand…& some naturalists are very confident that we can understand everything & that’s there’s no mystery… there is a lot of mystery.”
  • Max More’s #transhumanism … pits science vs. religion
  • Origins of the universe & life & consciousness “we don’t know!” Science might figure it out – it might not
  • “… whatever there is is part of nature”
  • Over-confidence vs. humility
  • The subjective & the objective
  • Plato & Parmenides: “being is more real than becoming”… “but we live in a world of becoming… how can that be less real?”
  • The “normative use of reality”… to “declare something else as not real… a term to deny something else its reality”
  • The denial of animal suffering “not so common any more” & the #cartesian model
  • “If you see an animal in pain you know it is in pain… it takes a lot of willful blindness not to acknowledge…”
  • “One of the reasons… why animals could not possibly feel any pain… because it would then be far too horrible how we treat animals… god wouldn’t allow it!”
  • “If we assume the world is good & we see all the apparent suffering… then it cannot be… A moral reason behind denying the suffering of animals”
  • JW “An echo of a religious mode of thought that’s then re-built in a humanist mode of thought”
  • “If we have evolved naturally… there’s no reason to assume our brains are capable of understanding the universe… what possible use can it have?”
  • “A naturalistic perspective should actually teach us humility”

29:03 What Matters?

  • “I don’t think that my early Christian upbringing has shaped my morals ideas & values”
  • “Morally I’ve been shaped… mostly by watching certain TV shows like Lassie & The Waltons & Little House on The Prairie… taught me what it means to do something right & something wrong… People & animals being in certain relations with each other”
  • “Being nice to each other… being decent… qualities that do not play a major role in ethical discussions but I think they are foundational”
  • Vs. #nihilism, #divinecommandtheory, #relativism, #egoism, transactional…
  • “I find it very difficult to align myself with a particular ethical system… #utilitarian … #Kantian … whatever… those systems highlight different aspects… that are all important”
  • “It’s a wrong approach to say ‘if we have conflicting moral intuitions one of them must be false'”
  • “When philosophers try to tell you that there’s one right answer… I’m always suspicious.”
  • “To think that there must be a right answer somehow assumes that we can live a perfectly good life”
  • Writing “Biotechnology and the integrity of life” & dignity
  • Bernard Rollin and the challenges to utilitarianism: When suffering reduction seems wrong (e.g. genetically engineering chickens to suffer less in factory farms)
  • “There seems to be something wrong in creating a living being that isn’t able to feel anything” Would enslavement be OK if we created humans that couldn’t suffer – or enjoyed being enslaved?
  • “Integrity… a word you use in order to capture a certain intuition… perhaps in the hope that by giving an intuition a name it becomes more real”
  • Luna intervenes

45:35 Who Matters?

  • Reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” & going vegetarian “I didn’t want to participate in practices that caused so much animal suffering”
  • Later “I stopped being a vegetarian so I reverted to a morality, at least in practice, that was smaller, narrower in scope than what it used to be”
  • “I’m a bit reluctant to reconsider the theory just to match my behaviour… people’s theories are very much influenced by what they want to be true”
  • The hypocrisy of adapting theory to match behaviour vs. the hypocrisy of behaviour not matching theory
  • “Why did I stop? The cynical answer would be that I got tired of being good… it takes so much effort… socially… it became probably too inconvenient.”
  • “I still believe that, obviously, animals have moral status and that animal lives matters and that animal suffering matters”
  • “We cannot live without killing” (e.g. crop deaths)
  • “It is utopian to think we could all live peacefully together without hurting each other… that does not mean you cannot reduce the suffering that you cause… I don’t really have a justification for why I’m not doing that more than I’m currently doing”
  • Ivory tower vs. activist vs. ordinary people philosophers
  • Why moral philosophers don’t seem to behave better than other humans
  • Ethics, morality and meaning “Defending a subjectivist conception of meaning in life”
  • “I don’t think meaning is an objective quality of life… but rather it is an aspect of the experience”
  • Meaning doesn’t have to “serve a higher purpose… or connect to some objective values”
  • The problems of paradigmatic cases of meaningful lives… famous people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Picasso, Einstein… people who did important things
  • “If that is the paradigm that you use in order to understand what a meaningful life looks like – the result is that most lives look meaningless… it seems to me this is wrong.”
  • “Even thought it might not be important from the perspective of the world or of society… they might just live their lives… no one takes any notice of it… they will be completely forgotten… but that doesn’t mean they don’t live meaningful lives”
  • You don’t have to do “important things” to have a meaningful life
  • “Many people just live ordinary lives… that does not mean their lives are not meaningful… there are things in those lives that they follow with interest… that are important to them”
  • “Meaning being subjective… a quality of our experience”
  • “I just don’t get the notion of objective value”… things mattering to us is enough
  • “The very notion of objective value appears obscure to me… I don’t understand what it means to say that something is valuable if nobody values it!”
  • “Value that isn’t realised by anyone”?
  • “Things matter if they matter to someone”
  • Michael’s “Living Like A Dog” paper
  • William James’ “On a certain blindness in human beings” “We have to assume that there’s always more to the experience of someone that is different from ourselves than we can possibly understand… because the other is the other”
  • “It seems to me the same is the case with animals… it’s not even that difficult”
  • “Many philosophers… their theories clearly exclude animals from having meaningful lives… very anthropocentric… you have to do things like art or philosophy in order to have a meaningful life… not just eat and drink and sleep… what we share with other animals is not what makes our life meaningful… what goes beyond the animal… what surpasses the animal in us”
  • “To say that non-human animals do not have meaningful lives… we judge their lives as not worth living”
  • “In reality we very much associate a meaningless life with a life not worth living… or that has a very reduced value”
  • “A live that is meaningless… is not worth protecting… is not worth any moral consideration”
  • Michael’s dog companion “Whatever she does there is interest there… you can see that clearly her life… is meaningful for her in the sense of being significant”
  • “We have this idea that only human lives are truly worth living”
  • A transhumanist take on animal rights
  • Previous guest and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association David Pearce
  • Human enhancement would “leave behind” non-human animals so “we also have an obligation to uplift animals to a human status and beyond… because the life of a non-human animal is ‘bad’ because it is the life of an animal… even the best animal life… is a bad life… they cannot do art, philosophy, politics…”
  • “For me that is so weird because it assumes that our lives are the best lives”
  • John Stuart Mill’s “Better to be an unhappy Socrates than an happy pig”… “what’s wrong with happy pigs?… for a pig to be a happy pig is the best you can ever be… It’s not the case that the pig would be better off if they were a human.”
  • The risks of transhumanist elitism even within the human species
  • Would re-engineering animals (human or not) so we cannot suffer be a good thing?
  • Eradicating or herbivorising predators?
  • “Again there is this unease about it… does the suffering also have a value?… what gets lost if we cannot suffer any more?”
  • “What happens to love?… If I cannot suffer when something bad happens to the one I love… I cannot suffer from the loss of the one I love… If I am indifferent… How can I say I love them?”
  • “If you remove suffering a lot of other things will also change… you cannot just isolate one thing and take it out… it will all be affected.”
  • “Even the word wrong seems wrong to me”… “Just because we cannot articulate it [what might be lost] with sufficient clarity doesn’t mean it isn’t there…”
  • The naturalistic fallacy: “I wouldn’t want to say that just because it’s natural it’s good but in natural things… there is horror… but there is also a lot of beauty… predators are beautiful too and that beauty should count for something”
  • Plotinus “beauty is the shine of the good”
  • “The beauty of the world is important… an indication of what is worth protecting”
  • Humility vs. “to think you can redesign the world… to create a world in which no one suffers… there’s no humility in there”
  • “Some who pursue those goals would deny precisely that [humility]”
  • John Harris: “Humility is not a virtue… you should be proud and ambitious”
  • “I don’t think there is an overall referee that could actually make the ultimate decision about who is right and who is wrong… it’s about us making certain decisions… creating the kind of world and also preserving the kind of world that we want to have”

01:26:44 How Can We Make a Better Future?

  • “My hope is somehow that we become more caring & less ideological & less self-destructive”
  • Politics: Brexit “and the willingness to commit economic suicide… the anti-immigration impulse”
  • “After 4 years of Trump being president more than 70 million Americans still want to have him again… should govern… one should emulate… the lack of decency”
  • “He’s the opposite of decency – he’s pure nastiness… that nastiness is not only being tolerated but admired and approved of… and he is just the tip of the iceberg”
  • Putin’s attack on Ukraine “It defies any reason”
  • “It’s not only that people are irrational… they seem to positively delight in destruction and chaos…”
  • “I’m a bit disillusioned… I assumed somehow that people are reasonable… to find a compromise… to get along with each other.”
  • “But the fact is we are a horrible species… we do things just for the sake of destruction and chaos”
  • “I only see it getting worse and worse – I’m quite pessimistic at the moment.”
  • JW “Philosophy can play an important role… but it can’t be disconnected… it has to be plugged into a realistic understanding of human psychology and social norms and political will”

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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