–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

“The Human Prejudice,” by Bernard Williams (1985)

by | Jun 13, 2024

When I was still teaching, the last unit of my introductory level “Ethics and Contemporary Issues” course was devoted to the question of moral concern for non-human animals. We would begin with excerpts from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, then move on to Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People,” and finish with Bernard Williams’ “The Human Prejudice.” It is a fitting way to end the course, for not only is Williams’ essay easily the most interesting and thought-provoking piece we read over the semester, Williams himself was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking philosophers to have worked since the Second World War.  

Peter Singer employs the word ‘speciesist’ in order to compare our tendency to give greater moral consideration to one another than to non-human animals with racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. It is this comparison and the conclusion Singer draws from it that Williams rejects. But beyond merely defending our inclination to give greater consideration to human beings than to non-human animals, Williams maintains that what moral consideration we do extend to non-human animals is dependent on the very human prejudice that Singer and his sympathizers want to stamp out. Indeed, for Williams, moral consideration of any sort, directed towards anyone or anything, is only intelligible in light of our reserving our greatest moral consideration for human beings and human concerns.  

Early in the essay, Williams observes that historically – at least in the West – the human prejudice  has been grounded in the idea, common to the Abrahamic religions, that we are made in the image of God and have been given dominion over nature, something that remains true whether one’s version of the story is optimistic, in the manner of Renaissance humanists like Pico, or pessimistic in the manner of Lutheran Protestantism.

Whether the views were positive and celebratory, or more sceptical or pessimistic, there was one characteristic that almost all the views shared with one another. For a start, almost everyone believed that human beings were literally at the centre of the universe.  Besides that purely topographical belief, however, there was a more basic assumption, that in cosmic terms, human beings had a definite measure of importance. In most of these outlooks, the assumption was that the measure was high, that humans were particularly important in relation to the scheme of things. This is most obviously true of the more celebratory versions of humanism, according to which human beings are the most perfect beings in creation. But it is also present in outlooks that assign human beings a wretched and imperfect condition – Luther’s vision, for instance, in which man is hideously fallen and can do nothing about it simply by his own efforts. The assumption is still there – indeed, it is hardly an assumption, but a central belief in the structure – that that fact is of absolute importance… The human condition is a central concern to God, so central, in fact, that it led to the Incarnation, which in the Reformation context too plays its traditional role as signaling man’s special role in the scheme of things. 

What is left of the human prejudice, if we no longer accept the idea that it is grounded in God’s overriding concern with us and our affairs? Williams rightly observes that the notion that human beings just are more important than any other creature, as if this is a matter of objective fact, or that we are of the greatest significance “to the universe” or “mother nature” or some other such thing is hardly credible, but he also maintains (again, rightly) that no such cosmic or objective importance is required. “We do not have to be saying anything of that sort at all,” Williams explains. “These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us, a fact which is hardly surprising.”

Of course this is precisely what Singer deplores and is why he associates the human prejudice with prejudice against black people, women, and Jews. And it is because he thinks that such prejudices have no epistemically respectable ground, resting on nothing but a naked, unreasoned preference for one’s own, that he believes them to be pernicious. 

Only, it isn’t true that sexism, and racism, and anti-Semitism are based in nothing more than a naked preference for white, male gentiles. If one asks sexists or racists or anti-Semites why they privilege white, male gentiles above others, they don’t simply say, “because they are white, male gentiles.” Rather they give reasons, like “Women are emotionally unstable” or “Jews are devious and clannish.” Of course, these reasons are terrible, because they are untrue, and it is precisely because they are grounded in the slander of their relevant targets that racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are malign.

In the case of the human prejudice, however, substantive reasons typically are not offered, when one is queried about it. If you ask someone why he so prioritizes a stranger’s life that he is about to run into a burning building to save him, it is very likely that the only answer you’ll get is that the stranger is a human being. “What, are you kidding?” he’ll say, “There’s someone in there!” And it’s worth noting that it makes no difference who the person is, whether a Nobel laureate, modest  laborer, or a child with Down’s syndrome. Indeed, there would be something quite weird, bordering on the grotesque, if one were to give reasons that went beyond the humanity of the individual trapped inside. Imagine if the person said in response to your query, “Well, he is a Nobel laureate after all.” You would wonder about him and with good reason.

The question returns, then, to whether the human prejudice is bad and why. For Singer, it would appear that a naked preference for one’s own is as bad as one based in a slanderous view of the other. Hence his view that we should turn to moral philosophy – specifically, to Utilitarianism – to determine to whom (or to what) we should extend moral concern. Such a vantage point is supposed to give us an impartial, rational, objective account of moral obligation free from pernicious prejudices.  

Williams thinks this is a delusion on Singer’s part, one that is shared by many – probably most – moral philosophers. Consider the quality that the Utilitarian selects as the ground upon which the extension of moral concern should be based: the capacity for suffering. Why should this be the relevant quality? Consider that in various parts of the tree of life, we find creatures that have no capacity for suffering – microbes; insects; worms; arachnids; etc. For the Utilitarian such beings are not deserving of our moral concern. But why should this be? What is so special about the capacity for suffering? Why shouldn’t the possession of a certain kind of carapace be what determines moral concern or having a certain kind of eye or whatever? The moral philosopher will, of course, answer that such qualities are morally irrelevant. But why? Is what’s morally relevant something that can be determined objectively; neutrally; logically? 

The answer, lurking just beneath the surface, is that the Utilitarian’s chosen quality, suffering, is a major human concern. As are autonomy and dignity, which, of course, are at the heart of Kantian moral philosophy. And so, the grounds on which moral philosophers instruct us to give moral consideration to non-human animals turn out to be an expression of the human prejudice, not some neutral, objective standard that hovers somewhere above it, in logical space.  (It is worth noting, here, as Williams does, that the word we use to describe the kind treatment of animals is ‘humane’.) To deny this is simply to return to the archaic and unsustainable notion addressed (and dismissed) earlier – that suffering or dignity or whatever just matter objectively, from no perspective. 

Beyond moral concern for animals, then, it is Williams’ view that ethical concern of every type and variety can only be understood in light of the human prejudice and ultimately, as an expression of it. It is people who have ethical concerns and we do so as a result of the things that we care about.  

We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life.  It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we cannot care equally about all the suffering in the world: it is a condition of our existence and our sanity. Equally, it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns, including our own, by criteria derived from nowhere. We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent… But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise.