The New Yorker never ceases to amaze me in its split personality. On the one hand, the view of the magazine’s contributors (and the tenor of the thing as a whole) is hard core liberal of the most literate kind, suggesting that its staff and contributing writers are highly educated, reasonable, insightful, and compassionate. There is another side to this group of oracles of the erudite message, however, which is as backwater and uninformed as the hairiest yahoo. I first encountered the underbelly of the glorious beast in a restaurant review of Benoit Restaurant, in which the food critic delightfully described how the chef (aka Dr. Evil in my view) served up whole piglets to celebrate spring. To complement that are articles about barbecue that seem more suited to Redneck’s Home Journal than a magazine claiming itself as a spokesman of sorts for one of the most enlightened cities in the world.
Now we have one of the team, Nathan Heller, who apparently was absent from the discussion of morality during Philosophy 101 back at Old Ivy. Heller takes on the topic, couched as something more and making of it something less, of animal rights as a moral issue. His jaunty little piece, “If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots?” is an exercise in superficial, tired, pseudo questions on morality as it concerns non-humans. For one, he calls humans “omnivores,” an old wives tale of a justification for meat eating, so easily countered by the fact that many species do not eat meat, and we have more in common with those species that do not eat meat than the predators that do. And even if we had the teeth and digestive system of a meat eater (which we don’t) the confinement and killing of farm animals has no similarity to predation at all. He also goes over the old ground of differentiating between humans and non-humans on the basis of cognitive ability, when it is an easily discernible reality that there are many humans who are not “cognitive peers” (e.g. infants and the brain-damaged) who are not excluded from moral treatment. He pontificates: “Until we can pinpoint animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe robots—or what they owe us.” We, or some of us, have “pinpointed” how we should treat nonhuman animals: we should follow the Golden Rule and abandon the maxim of “might makes right.” However, that does not address robots and what we owe them in the least because robots unlike humans and other species are not animals.
Throwing around hackneyed arguments in support of culturally endorsed cruelty only adds to the message that we don’t need to really think too long or too hard about what we do to animals. Tee hee, an animal, shoot, it’s kinda like a robot. Come on Nathan Heller, why not read more than a few lines for the purpose of your article of the authors whom you cite: Peter Singer, Johnathan Balcombe, Sherry Colb, Michael Dorf and Christine Korsgaard. If you do and you still come out with statements like you made in the article, then your education and intelligence failed to equip you to perform the most important kind of critical thinking—to question the forces of culture and self-interest.