Should we watch this? Updates

It’s on YouTube. It’s Mei Xiang, a giant panda, giving birth to the first of her twin cubs on Aug. 22nd. But should it be a public spectacle? Does this clip make it one?
What do you think?
The birth is filmed in the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

1. One of the cubs has died. It is not yet clear why.

2. There is a panda cam, and stills of Mei Xiang with a cub. One of the stills catches a mouse, which is discussed on the cam page. Before watching the cam or looking at the stills, you might want to check out the discussion following this post.

29 thoughts on “Should we watch this? Updates

  1. Wait, wut? Why is this a concern? Are we body-shaming pandas now too? Or is there some other reason I am not seeing why we should feel bad about being interested in or happy about panda births?

  2. Thanks rebeccakulka and Ruth. The questions I asked were genuine. I am also not sure where my deepest worries reside. Sometimes I think that I’m one of those people who doesn’t really distinguish between between human and non-human animals. From this perspective, I can get Kantian worries about treating pandas as objects. A more moderate worry, it seems to me, is Ruth’s; we shouldn’t be caging them up and displaying them for our amusement. This is a bit complicated, because in fact giant pandas are close to extinction, I think, and the zoo is also something of a research zoo, connected to the Smithsonian. Presumably learning about the present twin births could help in preservation.

    I don’t hold what rebecca amusingly calls “body-shaming pandas” and in some moods I can certainly think that the birth was a joyous occasion to share.

    What about the rest of our readers?

  3. Anne,

    1. Pandas are not rationally self-conscious in the way that is required in order to ground Kantian moral duty. Perhaps you’re interested in grounding deontology on some other duty-constructing power possessed by both humans and pandas, but what’s important here is that your invocation of Kant is a severe misunderstanding of his moral theory.

    2. What moral principle would get us from Ruth’s claim to your conclusion? Suppose that Ruth’s claim is correct. How is that relevant to the moral status of watching a panda give birth?

  4. Samantha, I think the whole question of applying Kantian concepts to ourselves and/or pandas has become very vexed. Let me mention three considerations:
    1. Lots of empirically minded philosophers would argue that Kant’s moral psychology does not fit human moral thinking. John Doris, sean Nichols and Gil Harman (I think) are among them. If that’s so, then either we give up the idea of treating people as means, or we still use it in cases where Kantian moral duty is not grounded.

    2. It does seem that Kant’s conception of treating something as a means or an object can be explained independently of his fuller theory, at least to some extent. A lot of philosophers have, e.g., introduced it by way of examples. I suppose that one might say that if pandas are not rationally self-conscious, then they are means and one should not have Kantian concerns about treating them as such. However, equally, one might hold that taking human beings with reason as the only entities one cannot use as one wishes is a pretty evil part of Western thought, and so either we should junk the whole of Kant’s conception or we should try to salvage some distinctions without the malicious theorizing behind it.

    3. Of course, if we’re not Kantian moral agents, it is extremely unlikely that pandas are. Still, how intelligent bears in general, and pandas in particular, are is a matter of debate. A lot of those studying bears think that they have the intelligence of a three year old, but I’m inclined to think that such claims need a lot of scrutiny.

    On to Ruth: why should we need a principle? I would have thought a virtue theorist might employ a notion of a practice. On such an account, it could be claimed that in filming and displaying caged pandas giving birth, we participate in a bad practice.

  5. P.S. I think Kant is the historical origin of the idea that one shouldn’t treat other human beings as mere means. Whatever that exactly means, it has been a culturally important thought, maybe particularly from the 1960’s onwards, and so there could be some point in keeping the term attached to Kant’s name even if its sense has changed a bit, as long as its referent is fairly set. That is, as long as the central cases remain central.

  6. At this point, however immoral the path that got us here, if we did not hold pandas in captivity and monitor and manage their breeding there would be no pandas.

    But also I am with Samantha. I just can’t see the slightest connection between those issues and the question of whether *filming and watching* the birth, specifically, is problematic. I just don’t even get how to start an argument to that effect. There is nothing shameful about birth, especially to a panda. I don’t see why one would object to this in any way separate from objecting to taking and watching panda film footage more generally, and I can’t imagine an objection to that either.

  7. Also, the Smithsonian is not just ‘also something of a research zoo’ – it’s a fully-functioning, publicly funded, high level research facility.

  8. RK, Some people find just about everything to do with displaying zoo animals distasteful at least, and perhaps objectionably exploitative. I lean toward the latter, but I’m not judgmental about those who disagree, and I’ll sometimes go to some exhibits in the Houston Zoo, for example.

  9. I think I lost my reply to the point about research at the zoo. So let me just point out that most of the research referred to on the zoo site actually takes place at a separate institute in Virginia:

    The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which launched on January 25, 2010, serves as an umbrella for the Smithsonian’s global effort to conserve species and train future generations of conservationists. The SCBI is headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia, at the facility previously known as the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center.

    Smithsonian people I have talked to about the movement of the red panda Rusty to the Institute refer to it as a separate entity. E.g., “Rusty has been moved from the zoo.” So also did at least one DC newspaper.

  10. Anne,

    There are some very serious confusions and conflations in your understanding of Kantianism and of metaethics more generally. I didn’t come here to give an intro lecture on either topic though, so I’ll just mention a few:

    1. Intelligence and rational self-consciousness are unrelated for the Kantian as well as for most philosophers of mind and epistemologists.

    2. Kant’s moral psychology wasn’t what was at issue here; what was at issue was whether you could employ the second formulation of the categorical imperative in order to bolster a claim that we were merely using pandas. Regardless, even if Kant’s moral psychology is at odds with contemporary psychological evidence, this itself would not be relevant to the consequences of Kant’s moral theory. Kant’s theory contains a phenomenological component and a moral component; if the phenomenological component is false, that doesn’t mean that the moral component doesn’t follow from it. Your point (1) is a red herring.

    3. Kantian duties are self-directed and not other-directed; this is an elementary mistake on your part in understanding Kant. Kant’s project is one of determining specifically humanly duties and the ground of those duties. If you don’t like that project, fine, but you can’t then pick and choose the bits you like and the bits you don’t, call the result “Kantian” and claim that the rest is a manifestation of evil.

    4. You misunderstand the term “moral principle.” A moral principle is a normative fact or truth that can connect general normative facts or truths with specific cases and has nothing at all to do with virtue ethics. Since an inference from Ruth’s claim to your conclusion is invalid, one would need such a principle to make the connection.

    But again, I didn’t come here to lecture you or anyone else on the foundations of ethics. I mean this with no disrespect, but it has become evident that this is not a discussion between epistemic peers. I appreciate that you are interested in animal ethics, but more of an understanding of the foundations of ethics is necessary.

  11. Samantha, I am perfectly happy to say that I know next to nothing about Kant’s ethics, and even less about metaethics. My interest in animal ethics is hardly meant to be formally informed. You will notice in my post that I was mainly asking questions. I did use the term “Kantian” but, lamentable or not, it is part of the practice of philosophers to use such labels without purporting to be doing much in the way of exegesis. I did give an argument for attaching Kant’s name to the idea of treating someone as a means even if the sense is not the same, but I don’t want to go beyond that. I had thought I was repeating some of what you said in order to concede it, but apparently I got that wrong too. (I suppose I should say that because of my friendships with Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthourse I am not entirely ignorant of virtue ethics.)

    I think that it is probably not such a good idea to take the use of a name as a reason for imputing vast areas of error to someone. There isn’t anything in my writing or my reputations – or so I hope – to suggest that I’m passing myself off as either a Kant expert or an expert in metaethics or animal ethics. It really is better, in my opinion, not to assume what is not given. I hope you will take this as friendly advice; I really don’t have a dog in most of these races, as Bill Clinton used to say, and I’m not at all bothered by your comments. That said, I thought they were ill-advised and considered not approving them, but I can imagine colleagues of mine preferring that not be done.

  12. But, Samantha, I know that both Nichols and Doris would deny your point about the red herring in 2. In general, I think that normative theories of any sort (e.g., moral, epistemological, etc) that fail to connect to us are simply failures. But that would be a topic for another occasion

  13. Anne,

    I think you are right about the empirical moral psychologists. Particularly Doris – also Adina Roskies and Tim Schroeder (your new city-mate!), whom you did not mention.

    Doris has a different (but related, is my point) argument that goes (something) like this. The traditional Kantian notion of autonomy is uninstantiated in human beings. So, either Kantians are mistaken about what constitutes autonomy, or we are never autonomous. He leaves the choice to the reader (listener, in my case) but it’s clear which disjunct he favors.

    I don’t know what rational self-consciousness is, but I think empirical moral psychologists are typically skeptical that we humans have any psychological property that can do the job of grounding our end-in-ourselves status while leaving non-human animals out. So, one might say, either we aren’t ends, or something that pandas might share makes us ends. (I don’t have any view about whether the second disjunct would deserve the label ‘Kantian’.)

    Just on terminology: different philosophers (even contemporary ones, let alone early moderns) mean different things by ‘moral principle’. For example, I think when Jonathan Dancy says that there aren’t any moral principles, he is not denying what Maggie Little and Mark Lance are affirming when they say what sorts of moral principles there are. I mention this because I think it is very easy to talk past one another on this topic.

  14. Thanks so much, Jamie, for shedding light on this discussion. There was a knock down and drag out discussion of Kant and the empirical moral psychologists at the Univ of San Francisco a few years ago. I think all of us empirically inclined philosophy beat up on Jeannette Kenner (sp?), and settled things to our satisfaction at least.

  15. I guess it boils down to whether or not a panda is capable of feeling exploited or dissatisfied by its existence.

  16. Samantha:

    1. Perhaps you aren’t aware of it, but on this thread you come across quite condescendingly.

    2. Your interpretation of Kant is one interpretation, but there are literally dozens of professionally accredited interpretations of Kant. Kant interpretation is probably one of the worst places in all of philosophy to declare another person incompetent simply because she does not accept one’s own view.

    3. I don’t see any justification for claiming that Kantian ethics is “self-directed and not other-directed”. Per Kant, our fundamental obligations are to rational nature, in ourselves OR in others. Kant goes to the trouble of marking out special self-regarding duties (e.g. to cultivate intellectual virtues and the disposition to be moved by moral reason) and it is hard to see why this should be a special category unless other duties are NOT strictly self-regarding.

    4. Your remarks about rationality and our duties to animals reflect a somewhat old-fashioned Kantianism. Look at recent work by Patrick Kain for a helpful reinterpretation. Or some of Korsgaard’s writings on animal ethics. There is much more nuance in the Kantian tradition than you seem willing to allow.

  17. BTW, I think that at least some virtue theorists want to say that they do not endorse attempts to formulate moral principles, if we mean something like exceptionless general statements. Mark Johnston has a similar view, I believe; his idea is that one cannot get away from using imagination in deciding a moral issue.

  18. Anne, I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I agree that something is wrong with this. Bear in mind that I’m a vegan who is against animal captivity in zoos, and, in response to Rebecca’s point, I do not think that preserving the lineage of a species is a good reason to keep individual animals in captivity (although protecting individual animals from poachers or other threats might be). My intuition here is that this video is being put out, and watched, in the foreground of a cultural framework that sees nothing wrong with these things.

    (NB. Whether or not my issues are compatible with Kantian ethics is a question I care very little about.)

  19. PS–my name is not Richard. Unbeknownst to me, a Richard was already signed in on this web site as I posted.

  20. Kevin, I think that’s pretty much where I am. I find my own actions are greatly influenced by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much harm being done here.

    I am a bit concerned about preservation, though. Someone in something I read recently describes Pandas as being Darwinian mistakes. Apparently females don’t generally like sex, the cubs are born extremely fragile and can easily be killed by the mother, panda mothering is so labor intensive many Pandas refuse to tend to two cubs, and basically they sit all day eating since bamboo is very low in nutritional value. They need some help, perhaps.

    But the whole practice of caging animals for our edification seems wrong, and clearly even in very good zoos which try to reproduce a natural habitat, a lot of animals are pretty stressed.

  21. I think zoos and captivity raise all sorts of deep moral issues. I just don’t see what any of this has to do with watching the birth *in particular* still. Nothing on this thread is addressing that question.

  22. RK,isn’t fairly clear that if we think a practice is deeply problematic, we ought to raise a question about participating in the practice, ev as passive spectators?

  23. What I think is problematic (or part of the problem) is the somewhat sickly-sweet character of people finding this event joyful and beautiful, the event being the birth of an animal into the sort of half-life that is animal captivity, and the rather depressing possibity that with the way humans are wantonly murdering and destroying the habitats of animals like pandas, that this is probably the best thing possible for it. It’s disturbing (to me) on all sorts of levels. Most people don’t seem to comprehend that, however, because of how igorant of and/or inured they are to the problematic nature of the situation: instead the event is “cute”.

  24. Forgive the double post (I hope I am not violating the rules in doing so), but I think, especially given the discussion about Kantianism above, that a possible mistake is in thinking that what is wrong with the video is that watching it violates of a moral requirement–as though thin ethical concepts of that sort were apt for capturing the morally salient features of the situation.

  25. Look the reason this video was put out is because panda numbers are so scarily iow that many people find the birth of a panda something to be celebrated. There are genuinely noble people interested in the protection of the species–and this is their way of reaching others–PR if you will–in hopes of preserving the damn things.

  26. Kevin – You may be right but I am hoping to find a more charitable/plausible reading of the OP.

  27. The OP actually just asked questions. I see that two comments I thought I had made on my iPad got lost. On them I suggested that if I were to really try to answer the question, then I’d look carefully at cases where I am pretty sure we should not be even passive observers of a practice and those in which I think it is fine. E.g., I don’t think we should watch arranged dog fights, but I think it is fine to watch ordinary household dog training. There are lots of things we might put in between. I don’t know what result this would yield, in part because the practice of caging animals and putting them on display has many different ways it is realized and in part because I do take conservation serious. Finally, life in the wild is often nasty, brutal and short.

    Maybe I should add that I have three house bound cats. I think that the cats we had who had cat-door access to the outside were living better lives, but ones that sadly were quite short.

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