A US Constitution For All Sentient Beings – Maybe Sooner Than We Think? – Professor Michael Dorf – Sentientism Episode 145

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube channel and here on the Sentientism podcast.

Michael is a law professor and scholar of U.S. constitutional law. He is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. In addition to constitutional law, Michael has taught courses in civil procedure and federal courts. He has written/co-written/edited six books, including Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (co-written with his wife, Sherry Colb), as well as scores of law review articles about American constitutional law. He is also a columnist for Verdict. Michael is a former law clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Michael has appeared in American news media as a legal expert and has been interviewed by and/or quoted in, for example, The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (another suspected sentientist).

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:
00:00 Welcome
02:02 Michael’s Intro

  • Studying physics, then the law
  • Clerking then legal scholarship
  • Blogging at Dorf On Law
  • #vegan since 2006
  • Animal work in partnership with Mike’s wife, Sherry Kolb “we agreed on nearly everything, but not quite everything”

04:44 What’s Real?

  • Growing up in New York, raised #jewish “but mostly culturally”
  • “My father never went to synagogue unless it was somebody’s wedding… he was not at all religious but he was the most ethical person I knew”
  • “Religion is not necessary and certainly… not sufficient to make someone an ethical person”
  • “That personal aspect… overshadowed anything I was being taught”
  • Dad’s library: “the answers that the religious folks were giving to deep philosophical questions… barely scratched the surface… whereas if I went into my dad’s study… Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy”… Lao Tse…”
  • Teaching: “what I really value is engagement with hard questions”
  • “The sorts of answers that religion gives stop asking the questions just when they become interesting… god made the world… god thus commanded it… it leaves lots of further questions unasked”
  • Choosing to believe? Faith? “I don’t even understand the disposition… I’ve never been able to choose to believe things”
  • “Nearly all of the spiritual or supernatural beliefs I’ve encountered, whether religious or otherwise, strike me as ridiculous”
  • Taking an Indian philosophy class with Robert Nozick (based on advice from Amartya Sen)
  • “If that happens [god appearing] then I’ll adjust my views… but that will be in response to evidence… that itself would be a kind of naturalism.”
  • #ontology , #epistemology , #fideism
  • “The core evidence for me against the existence of a benevolent deity is the existence of evil in the world”
  • “Sherry’s parents were holocaust survivors and all of her other relatives… were wiped out by the Nazis”
  • “I actually find myself offended… after winning a football game you see an athlete thanking god… it strikes me as arrogant to think that the creator of the universe thought to intervene… to ensure that the ball bounced this way and that but not to prevent the suffering & death of millions of humans & billions of non-human animals”
  • “I might be amenable to the belief that the world was created by a malevolent being… but that’s not really on offer.”
  • #Freewill #theodicy “it’s flawed even on its own terms”
  • Transitioning away from religion
  • “There really are two distinct Jewish communities”: liberal or #orthodox
  • Even in #ultraorthodox communities “practice is more important than faith”
  • Possibly true story: group of very religous Jewish men in Auschwitz “put god on trial… and essentially convict god… then they pray”

26:40 What Matters?

  • “I am deeply pragmatic” John Dewey, William James #pragmatism
  • “My moral intuitions come before any attempt at synthesising or deriving them…”
  • Family participating in a longitudinal research study “there’s a chapter on my father and me” in the book “Mothers, Fathers & Children”
  • Father on philosophy of parenting: “I’m anti-philosophical”
  • “Part of pragmatism is that you do it almost unthinkingly… there are some things I’m very deliberate about… when I became vegan that meant making choices…”
  • #Coherentism & Rawls’ “reflective equilibrium… closer to #deontology than #utilitarianism … but it’s not important to me to work out exactly where it fits…”
  • Michael Huemer’s Intuitionism
  • “The problem of bad coherence… a worldview that coheres but causes external harm”
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes “the bad man theory of the law… look at the law from the perspective of the bad man… law is a means of social control to rein him in.”
  • “I don’t think it’s intuitions all the way down… I am willing to let go of those of my intuitions that I think are not justified… but you need to start some place”
  • “It’s easier to define bad than good… Bad is acting in ways that harm others… and oneself…
  • “First do no harm… secondarily… try to do some good”
  • Sam Bankman-Fried’s “earn to give” and Effective Altruism “It doesn’t at all undercut the case for the broad concept that one ought to try to do as much good as one can”
  • Peter Singer’s “The Most Good You Can Do” “I don’t think I’m capable of that”… “The most good I can do consistent with a life I find fulfilling”
  • “Should implies can”
  • The risks of maximisation and ends/means problems

46:06 Who Matters?

  • Sentientism as pluralistic re: deontology / virtue / care / utilitarian ethics & re: degree of demandingness beyond “not needlessly harming & killing sentient beings”
  • Coming to veganism late in life
  • Adopting two dogs, meeting farmed goats “we came to see their similarity to dogs… we gave up eating mammals… that I think opened us up to persuasion”
  • Sherry’s colleague Gary Francione “a bit of a mentor”
  • “We became vegan… then we discovered this whole community… that was crucial… there’s a very strong social component to my veganism… that social component includes non-human animals…”
  • “The bigger challenge is having it taken seriously as a moral commitment”
  • Facing interrogations re: veganism “difficult conversations”
  • Sherry’s book “Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?”
  • “They [non-vegans] think you’re judging them… and of course you are”
  • “It’s much more common now that if I go out to lunch with a non-vegan they’ll order vegan… that won’t happen if it’s a group of 12, but…”
  • Sentience as a moral qualifier
  • Biocentrism, ecocentrism, anthropocentrism
  • “It’s not important to me to push back strongly against views that nature itself and inanimate objects like rivers & planets have moral interests except…” if rocks and cabbages are seen as having the same rights as pigs or hens
  • The risk of quietism “everything matters so nothing does”
  • “Sentience is a baseline for moral consideration”
  • Caring about ecosystems “for the benefit of the animals who live in those ecosystems… positive externalities”
  • Other values: “when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan buddhas it was a great harm” e.g. aesthetics as a derivative value
  • Plant sentience “does the tree have its own interests? I can understand the argument… it doesn’t move me very much”
  • “Hard questions at the boundary”
  • “That is the one issue on which Sherry and I actively disagreed” (egalitarianism between sentients vs. potential grading of sentience & moral consideration weights)
  • Watching out for anthropocentrism traps
  • Panpsychism, micro and macro-consciousnesses
  • Physicalism and sentience as patterns of information processing
  • The philosophy of personal identity. The Ship of Theseus “almost a semantic question”. Daniel Dennett, John Perry, Derek Parfit
  • Nozick’s idea of “the closest continuer”
  • “…We have a strong internal subjective sense of our own continuity over time… but we don’t understand its boundaries… and I think sentience probably works the same way.”
  • Ginsberg and Jablonka’s Unlimited Associated Learning
  • Walter Veit’s pathological complexity
  • Evolution and developmental processes re: degrees of sentience “a kind of isomorphism between the two”

01:13:36 How Can We Make a Better Future?

  • “A story I tell my students on the last day of class… equanimity about good and bad fortune”
  • Unforeseen consequences
  • Working with Barack Obama “I was delighted when Barack Obama was elected as president… his presidency was probably a but-for cause of Donald Trump’s presidency… so was that a good thing or a bad thing – who knows?”
  • A humility about the possibility of doing good… “at the very least act locally… be kind & considerate of the people and non-human animals around me”
  • Activism through writing “maybe that has an effect”
  • Teaching and working as a lawyer. The law as “a limited but sometimes effective tool”
  • Re: protecting non-human animals, the law “plays almost no role… laws riddled with loop holes… minimal enforcement… exclusions”
  • “Law in constitutional democracies… are not going to be more than at most a standard deviation away from public opinion… so one has to work on public opinion”
  • “Law plays a very important role in creating the ecosystem in which activism can occur”… California’s law re: commercial kitchens and live animals
  • Protests against and investigations of slaughterhouses & farms. Challenging ag gag laws. “Removing obstacles to effective advocacy”
  • “Law can move things… but it’s got to have a hand-hold”
  • Same-sex marriage & other issues where the law has led public opinion
  • Sid Tarrow
  • Sceptical support for the Non-Human Rights Project “they lose every case but sometimes you win by losing”
  • Are Sentience-based laws tokenistic dead-ends or stepping stones to something that could be meaningful and enforced?
  • Meliorism “sometimes the adoption of baby-steps cuts off reform… but sometimes it’s a stepping stone” “it’s very hard to know ex-ante”
  • A Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights and Sentientist Development Goals
  • Could there be a future US Constitution that grants rights to all sentient beings?
  • Martha Nussbaum’s capacities approach: “I disagree with her implementation of it… she’s not a vegan… she has a very limited understanding of what animal capacities really are”
  • Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s “Zoopolis”… “They allow for exploitation in ways that I wouldn’t approve of”. “There’s still something dignified about being a moral actor, not just a moral patient”
  • “I would want this constitution for the sentient beings to at a minimum recognise the rights of non-human animals as moral patients but also to have some recognition for their agency”
  • Alasdair Cochrane’s “Sentientist Politics”
  • Early 2000’s constitutional law conference “how far away do you think same sex marriage is…” none of the answers were even close to how soon it occurred… “so maybe it’s sooner than I think [a sentientist constitution]… the real question is does the planet survive long enough to get us there”
  • Follow: Dorfonlaw.org, @dorfonllaw, verdict.justia.com

… & much more!

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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