What’s wrong with torturing sloths for fun?

Most of us are inclined to believe that there are some things that just are right, and some thing that just are wrong. It seems true to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. But what is it that makes it wrong? This is a topic I will go on about at great length if given half a chance, but here I will only outline some of the main theories (and waffle on about them at great length in future posts).

1. Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism argues that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong” because of certain cultural norms that make it morally unacceptable to torture a sentient being just for the fun of it. You might think of it in terms of manners. In some cultures people shake hands when meeting a new person, in others people place their hand on their heart and bow. There is no right or wrong here, it’s just different norms. In the same way, those who favour cultural relativism are inclined to argue that there is no truth regardless of culture. What makes “torturing sloths for fun is wrong” true is that it is culturally tabo to be the sort of person who tortures sloths.

2. Virtue ethics

Alternatively, you might believe that it is not culture that makes it wrong, but rather the fact that you are a human being. Good humans act in a virtuous manner and do not torture sloths for the mere fun of it. It would not be virtuous to torture a sloth, it would be cruel and brutish, and a virtuous person knows not to act in cruel and brutish ways. He should instead foster virtuous behaviour such as generosity, kindness and honesty.

3. Kantian ethics

Or you might believe that it is wrong to torture sloths because you cannot rationally will every other person to torture sloths. Before you act you must think “would I want everyone to act in this way?” (the so-called universalisation test) Do you think that it would be alright if everyone was to torture a sentient being for fun? Presumably not, in which case it is wrong. (Although Kant is a little awkward to bring up in an example about animals).

4. Utilitarianism

It could, instead, be that it is wrong to torture sloths because of the pain it gives to the sloth. A utilitarian would argue that maximising pleasure is right and maximising pain is wrong. Therefore, the pain of the sloth would mean that it is wrong to torture sloths for fun.

Notice, however, that a utilitarian has a problem in that a person might enjoy torturing a sloth and he might be in a room full of sadists who gain more pleasure as a group from watching the sloth’s plight that the sloth is in pain. The utilitarian has to do some tricky argumentative gymnastics to hold that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”, if many people gain pleasure from it.

5. Divine Command Theory

Another option is that what is right and wrong depends on what God commands. If God commands that torturing sloths for fun is wrong, then it is wrong because God has commanded it. Here it is worth noting that those who don’t believe in God are not let off the moral hook. Just as someone who does not believe in gravity still feels its effects, the fact that people don’t believe in God wouldn’t change the fact that it is wrong. There are, however, numerous other problems with God suring up morality that will be explored in another post. (roll on the jolly old Euthyphro Dilemma)

This list is harldy eshaustive, but it offers some of the main options open to you if you are enclined to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. Of course, there are some who argue that it makes no sense to say that “torturing sloths for fun is wrong”. I will save this motely bunch of anti-realists for another day.

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Believing, doubting and doing

Recently, I was arguing with a friend who believes he ought to be a vegetarian. He is not one of those who simply thinks it would be healthier were he a vegetarian, rather he holds the view, more susceptible to self-righteousness, that it is morally better if he is a vegetarian. He argues that it is better for the environment and animal welfare that he eat no meat.

Yet he told me, with soulful lament, that he still occasionally indulges in a steak or a bacon sandwich, and he has been wrestling with the question of whether it is possible for him to genuinely hold the moral belief that he ought not to eat meat, yet still sometimes eat meat.

I told him not to be too hard on himself; he can reasonably hold that he should be a vegetarian and still not always act in accordance with his belief. Unfortunately, he was unconsoled, grasping my arm and asking dramatically what could determine what he believes, if not his actions. In eating meat, he said, he betrays that he doesn’t believe in his moral conviction enough.

I agreed, extricating myself from his grip, that it would be odd to espouse the virtues of a meat-free diet, while still chomping away at a bacon sandwich every breakfast. But I do think it is possible to eat meat now and then and believe it is wrong to eat meat. You might believe it to be true, but be overcome by other factors, such as the social pressure of not disappointing Auntie Mildred who has slaved over a Sunday roast. It doesn’t mean you believe it any less, you just think it’s more important not to upset Auntie Mildred on this occasion. He, for his part, seemed unconvinced and said sorrowfully that if he truly held his beliefs he ought to be sticking to his guns.

Though I didn’t feel as passionately as he did, I thought the question was an interesting one. What are the criterion for holding a moral belief? Should I be motivated by it all the time? Or is it enough to be slightly motivated by it, just enough to give me a twinge of guilt as I sit down in front of the goggle box instead of providing my services at the nearest soup kitchen.

I think that it is possible to hold a moral belief generally but not have to be motivated by it all the way through to action. Imagine if we had to act on every moral impulse, there would be no time for doing things that make life pleasurable, such as going to the opera or scratching yourself in front of the telly.

Or maybe I am just to laissez faire about morality and there is a moral standard which I am failing to live up to by writing diatribes about the demandingness of morality, while I could be out helping people. As for my friend, I am still of the opinion that he can hold his belief and not act on it every time. While he, possibly a more moral cove than me, guiltily partakes in a steak every now and then.