CPBD 069: Nathan Nobis – Moral Realism and Animals

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 29, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Nathan Nobis. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Moral realism vs. moral anti-realism
  • Ethical animal treatment

Download CPBD episode 069 with Nathan Nobis. Total time is 54:03.

Nathan Nobis links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

James September 29, 2010 at 7:10 am

Nathan suggests that the moral “should” is comparable to the epistemic “should” as in “you really should have evidence for your view” and says that the two are equally mysterious.

But the epistemic “should” smuggles in the assumption that you want to achieve a true understanding. Sure, IF you want to have a true understanding, you “should” have evidence before you have confidence. (Let’s say that we’re going to define truth as a “good explanation” that is as simply specified and predictively powerful as possible.) But IF you don’t desire a true understanding, then the epistemic should evaporates.

So the analogy doesn’t seem to achieve what Nathan wants it to.

The crucial difference between description and prescription is that we can only perceive one actual universe, but we can imagine more than one future. We don’t need to specify a filter to agree on which universe is actual (because there is only one) but we do need to specify a filter to agree on which imagined future is best (because there is more than one.)

Desireism is a pretty damn good such filter, with a lot of convincing power, but I’d love to see what desireism has to say about cheating. (Why would my desire for good roads motivate me to not cheat on my taxes?)


Joshua Blanchard September 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm

As a moral realist with no cogent objections to vegetarianism, this hits close to home. Yet another nail in the meat-filled coffin that is a metaphor for my body.


lukeprog September 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Our descendents will be pretty disgusted with how we treat animals today.


Hermes September 29, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Meat dress jerky! Mmmmmmmm…


Hermes September 29, 2010 at 6:22 pm

On a serious note, I believe that the issue of abortion and animal rights could inform each other. Right now, advocates and opponents for each aren’t interested in the arguments of the other and are generally not sympathetic to each other’s advocacy.

Better yet, if we could learn more about self-aware sentience as an issue illuminated by science, we might be able to say if that is the line where the right of self-determination should kick in or not. It may turn out that self-awareness is not the proper line, but right now the arguments by animal rights and anti-abortion advocates are frequently emotional with some facts thrown in to heighten the emotional appeal.

A chicken is not on the same level as a pig, and a blastocyst is not the same as a new born, yet they are often treated as the same in these arguments leading to (potentially) pigs being immorally treated and conversely deaths of humans who don’t benefit from stem cell research and treatments.


Jeff H September 29, 2010 at 6:56 pm

For anyone who’s considering becoming vegetarian, let me tell you…it’s not as difficult as you likely think. I’ve been veggie for over a year now, and the only think I miss is bacon…sweet, delicious bacon.

But I agree with Hermes. I’ve often seen a link between abortion and animal rights – where we draw the line between “person” and “non-person” may say a lot about our subsequent views on how we treat animals. Ironically, it’s not a notion pro-life people typically like to bring up, considering that they are treating a fertilized egg with more dignity than a living, breathing, fully-formed mosquito. A mosquito that’s a million times more complex than the egg.


Hermes September 29, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Jeff, I agree.

From the omnivore side of the fence, a good alternative to pork bacon is turkey bacon. It’s still meat, but it is quite tasty if crisped up right and I don’t think a turkey has a very good chance to pass the mirror test, while pigs usually do. Humans tend to pass it before age two, so I’m open to some other measure just to nudge any valid test towards self-serving human-biased results.


Charles September 29, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I wouldn’t say it’s hard to be vegetarian/vegan. Just inconvenient. Especially when family can’t or won’t accomodate you.


Bill Maher September 30, 2010 at 12:05 am

On a side note, if you go to the students part of Heumer’s site, he has complete class notes for virtually every philosophy subject, including graduate and seminar classes. He also has syllabus with the accompanied reading listed. as someone who is trying to get their shit together for grad school, all I can say is: JACKPOT!


Bill Maher September 30, 2010 at 12:07 am


on Hermes and Jeff’s discussion, I am a pescatarian. I tried being a veggie a few time, but I got very sick. This is the extent of what I can do.

Also, I do not see that much of a leap between eating plants and clams. does anyone else?


Ajayraju September 30, 2010 at 1:24 am

I am sure that just like slavery, killing animals for food will be a thing of the past in the near future.

But dont worry meat eaters, you can still eat meat. Just that it wont come from killing animals. It will be lab grown meat.






Ajayraju September 30, 2010 at 1:27 am

I am a vegetarian. But i find it tough to answer the following moral question a meat eater once asked me…

When you go for a leisure walk or indeed a drive in a car, you end up crushing millions of microorganisms under your foot or car. Not just microorganisms but maybe pain feeling ants, insects, etc etc. So would you avoid going out for a walk or a drive unnecessarily when u dont need to?


Nathan Nobis September 30, 2010 at 5:06 am

Here is a 2000 word paper that sums up the first part of our discussion:
“Moral Nihilism, Intellectual Nihilism & Practical Ethics”


Bebok September 30, 2010 at 6:03 am


The evidence that insects can feel pain is poor, at least in the present moment. I’m vegan and I don’t pay much attention to insects I unintentionally crush. But perhaps I should? I agree the question is tough.
But anyway, how could that help to justify meat-eating? Even if insects could suffer like vertebrates can, wouldn’t it still be better to be inconsistent and refrain from harming some animals than not to refrain from harming animals at all?


Zeb September 30, 2010 at 6:06 am

Bill Maher, I agree, especially wrt crustaceans and insects, whose nervous systems are so rudimentary that I see little reason to try to empathise with them. I plan to explore the possibilities of raising insects for food as a way to get away from eggs and dairy, which necessitate massive slaughter of the unneeded males, to which we vegetarians mostly turn a blind eye.

As a wise man once said, “It’s ok to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings.”


lukeprog September 30, 2010 at 7:38 am

Good link, Bill Maher.


dh September 30, 2010 at 11:06 am


See the hypocrisy/line drawing argument explored here.


Zeb September 30, 2010 at 5:04 pm

For a while I have been wondering, why do we generally consider only individual organisms when we talk about morality? More importantly, should we?

As a vegetarian I have often been asked why it is ok to kill and eat a carrot but not a cow. As a farmer I have concluded that for plants at least, it is the genome and not the individual organism that deserves moral consideration. The carrot genomes ‘succeeds’ because humans derive benefit from killing most of the individual organisms. And it is collective genomes (or populations), not particular organisms, that provide actual and potential value to other organisms. This dynamic is even more apparent in social insects like bees. There is only one bee that matters in a hive: the queen. Only she reproduces, and every aspect of a worker or drones’ life is geared toward facilitating her reproduction. And so when a beekeeper tends a hive, inevitably killing dozens of bees in the process, she is not harming even the ones she kills so long as she is benefiting the queen, because their lives had no goal other than that.

But this same argument could be used for cows, which as a genome benefit from the slaughter of millions of beef. It has been used to justify killing hundreds of cowbirds to prop up the population of Kirtland warblers (check it out on Radiolab). So how do we decide – is the individual that matters? The community, population, genome, what? Why don’t we generally think moral wrong can be done to our cells, tissues, body parts independently of our personal concerns? And while people often do think that moral harm can be done to cultures, populations, and communities of humans (a genocide of one million seems to receive more condemnation than an indiscriminate slaughter of one million), is that justified?

I hope this question of what is and what is not an object of moral concern is addressed in the desirism podcast. I know that desires are the ultimate object, but if desire=reason for action, why wouldn’t we attribute desires to cells, genes, genomes, groups, cultures, etc.?


Jeff H September 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Zeb, I’m not sure I’m following your logic. I’m not sure why you specifically are vegetarian, but the general arguments I’ve heard typically revolve around animals being sentient or being able to feel pain. Under this view, since a carrot doesn’t feel pain, there is no reason to be apprehensive about eating one. The genome matters because if we wish to continue eating carrots in the future, we need to grow more. I’ve never heard anyone argue that we shouldn’t hurt others because of their genome. That seems absurd to me.

As far as desires are concerned, I think that’s a tricky issue that Luke or Alonzo will have to clear up, but in most cases at least, it seems to be the brain that is the source of desires. As cells, genes, and genomes don’t have brains, and as groups and cultures do not have one unified brain, the object of moral concern doesn’t lie in these things. They would lie in organisms – specifically those ones that have brains that produce desires.


Kyle Key October 1, 2010 at 11:23 am

Re: The last link cited in the original post:
Although I think Bryanna Clark Grogan is a good source for recipes among many others, a better starting point for information on factory farming would be here:

I greatly favour their encouraging, non-absolutist stance.


Kyle Key October 1, 2010 at 5:09 pm

@Bill Maher:
It’s unfortunate that you got sick; if you’re genuinely interested but simply felt unable to continue, I’d recommend looking here for relevant nutrition information:
I prefer that site because Jack Norris doesn’t sugar-coat the science; he dispels the nutrition myths that vegetarians/vegans commonly hold and frequently updates his recommendations with links to any new, published studies.

The simplest thing that I can think of is ensuring that you take a multivitamin that provides B12, Iron, Zinc, and Vitamin D (almost all do); one that I use daily is DEVA multivitamin, and it can be found on Amazon for what comes out to roughly 10 cents per day.

“Also, I do not see that much of a leap between eating plants and clams. does anyone else?”
I agree. My only issue there would be determining where the clams/oysters/mussels/scallops are coming from. If they’re being trawled out of the ocean (i.e. “wild caught”), the process is almost certainly injuring/killing many times more fish/birds (in weight) than it’s catching, as well as destroying the habitat and food sources of other fish local to the trawling area. If they’re being grown at a small local fishery under controlled conditions, and you can check out the conditions yourself, then I really see no problems with it.


Zeb October 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Jeff, I think that pain and desires as bases for moral decisions are both philosophically problematic for the same reasons. I can think of at least three different ways to think about them. There is the feeling of hurting and of wanting, but that brings up all the problems of qualia, and besides, not all pain is harmful or undesirable, and not all harm is painful; a lot of meat slaughter is painless. Then there is the biochemical sense of pain and desire. The problem with using this sense as the basis of morality is that we have no reason to believe that everything we want to call pain or desire shares the same biochemical forms, not even in the same organism. Finally there is the abstracted sense, which is what desirism goes with; desires are reasons for action. And so we might say that pain is an automatic response to harm that tends to compel evasion or compensation of the harm, or something like that. But I think it would be hard to come up with am abstraction of pain that plants don’t exhibit (without using special pleading.) Plants are actually much more dynamic than we tend to think. Likewise I find it difficult to come up with an abstraction of desire that groups, cells, genomes, etc don’t exhibit. Maybe you can provide me one. I’m looking forward to the podcast that explains what counts as a desire, why only individual animals can have them, and why the seeming harm that can be done to groups, parts, and genomes is not true harm that is morally relevant. I suspect that it all comes down to the narrative that we choose to lay over the bare facts; do we look at life as a bunch of genomes trying to endure and proliferate via organisms, or a bunch of organisms pursuing whatever goals they may have, or a bunch of communities with goals synthesized from the activities of their members, or just a spontaneous geological process that whipped up an odd froth of earth, air and water powered by the sun?

That said, my reason for being vegetarian is that animals exhibit human like responses to violence (not just pain, but also death and confinement), but the harm that concerns me is to the humans who treat the animals that way, not to the animals themselves. My intuitive take on Christian stewardship (informed by science) is that we should preserve biodiversity by protecting plant genome, and respect the dignity of animals by not raising them for slaughter.


Ajayraju October 3, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Hi Bebok, you wrote….

The evidence that insects can feel pain is poor, at least in the present moment. I’m vegan and I don’t pay much attention to insects I unintentionally crush. But perhaps I should? I agree the question is tough.
But anyway, how could that help to justify meat-eating? Even if insects could suffer like vertebrates can, wouldn’t it still be better to be inconsistent and refrain from harming some animals than not to refrain from harming animals at all?

Well, it may justify meat eating in the sense that it is about drawing lines and they just drew a line a litte farther than mine. I think the following link mentioned elsewhere first in this discussion is apt for this.

But you are right, maybe the organisms under our foot dont feel the pain. Also, i guess the act of killing or eating animals for tasty food may be a bit different from going about our lives and killing other organisms…it is more of a collateral damage with no intention to kill them.


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