A Philosopher's Blog

Kant and Tasering Dead Rats

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2018

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While Logan Paul has posted YouTube videos of rather awful behavior, his channel is still operating as of this writing. Paul’s latest video adventure involved tasering a dead rat, leading Penny Arcade to raise the moral question of the ethics of dead rat tasering as well as the morality of YouTube continuing to tolerate the presence of Paul’s videos.

Since YouTube is in the business of making money, it makes sense for it to monetize whatever legal product will make money, regardless of how awful it is. Since our civilization tolerates the sale of tobacco and opioids (with a prescription), it is rather hard to condemn the “selling” of what Paul creates. After all, there are clear doubts about the harms of viewing a video of a dead rat riding the lightning. While much could be said about the ethics of allowing these videos to remain up (since YouTube is a private company, it has no requirement to honor the 1st Amendment), I will turn to Penny Arcade’s inquiry into the tasering of a dead rat. Obviously, this discussion will take place within the context of Kant’s ethical theory.

Kant makes it clear that animals are means rather than ends—they have no moral status of their own. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. While one might dispute Kant’s view about the ability of living animals to follow the moral law, one can see clearly and distinctly that a dead rat cannot do this. It is, after all, dead. An ex-rat.

Despite this view, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses philosophical sleight of hand: the dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act. In support of this, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty: they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages kindness. He even praises Leibniz’ gentleness towards a mere worm. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings. But what about dead animals, like the rat Paul tasered?

A dead animal clearly and obviously lacks any meaningful moral status of their own. While animal right advocates tend to argue that living animals think and feel, even they would agree that a dead animal does not feel or think. As such, a dead animal lacks all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own. Oddly enough, given Kant’s view of living animals, a dead animal would seem to be on par with a living one. After all, living animals are also mere objects and have no moral status of their own.

Of course, the same is also true of rocks and dirt. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat rocks well. Perhaps this would also apply to dead animals, such as the rat Paul tasered. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to dead animals. Thus, the issue is whether dead animals are more like live animals or rocks.

A case can be made for not abusing dead animals. If Kant’s argument has some merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a living rat could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the living rat.  This should also extend to dead animals. For example, if being cruel to a dead rat would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If being kind to the dead rat, such as giving it a burial, would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should be kind to the corpse.

While some might think to mock the idea of treating dead animals well, it is well worth noting that Kant’s reasoning would also apply to dead humans. A dead human is no longer a rational being—the corpse is but a thing. However, abusing the corpse of a human could damage a person’s humanity and make them more inclined to harm living humans. As such, while human corpses have no moral status of their own, it would be wrong to abuse them.

While the impact of abusing a human corpse would probably be greater than abusing the corpse of an animal, it would be odd to think that most decent people would be able to abuse animal corpses and suffer no ill consequences to their character. As such, the question raised by Penny Arcade can be answered: tasering a dead rat is morally wrong.

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12 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on February 14, 2018 at 7:21 pm

    What if he cremated the dead rat? Any moral difference?

    • WTP said, on February 18, 2018 at 5:23 pm

      So just got back from Port Canaveral where we were watching the morning’s sport fishing catch come in. As they were hanging each king mackerel up on hooks, gouging its eye out on the hook, I was thinking how is this different? The fish can be eaten without having to mutilate it to turn it into some trophy just for picture purposes. And what about deer antlers turned into coat and hat racks? We certainly wouldn’t do such with the remains of dear ol’ Aunt Minnie.

  2. WTP said, on February 14, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    I only briefly scanned this, as usual, because the initial paragraph was fraught with pearl clutching. As usual. So I skipped to the conclusion, as usual, which, as usual, was absurd. Given that what I scanned was effectively, again, the logic equivalent of viewing gay porn, can one of y’all correct me if I’m wrong here? The rat in question is dead, correct? It remains dead throughout the course of the argument? And per the final paragraph was there something in the middle that somehow, some way still allows for eating dead animals? I mean I could see a vegan or such make such an argument, and putting aside my differences with the very premise of extreme veganism, it is an argument I can respect… from a vegan.

    Why do I suspect this is meant to be a distraction from Mike’s epic fail arguments on economics?

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 14, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    Substitute “live human fetus” for “dead rat”

  4. TJB said, on February 14, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    “Corpses should be thrown away more than dung …” –Heraclitus

  5. TJB said, on February 15, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Great talk by Sharyl Attkisson on critical thinking.

    • CoffeeTime said, on February 15, 2018 at 5:30 pm

      Thanks, TJB. Nice talk. I’d call it more an exposé of the corruption of news sources than a talk about critical thinking, but well worth watching.

      I’d say she’s still rather too trusting, but she’s young. 🙂

      It led me to this video of hers dated yesterday. I’ll watch for the phrase “media literacy” over the next months.

      • TJB said, on February 15, 2018 at 6:17 pm

        She’s fantastic.

        • WTP said, on February 15, 2018 at 8:55 pm

          She’s a Gator. 😉

        • CoffeeTime said, on February 16, 2018 at 11:10 pm

          I’ve been looking her up since, and she really is fantastic. I didn’t know her, didn’t realise she broke the Fast and Furious scandal, and did so much to chip away at US government information abuses over the past decade.

          I’ll definitely take the opportunity to read and see more of her work!

  6. dh said, on February 16, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    There are so, so many other things to worry about; this really feels like a waste of time. We can discuss the morality of tasering dead rats until we’re blue in the face – we can argue about rat’s rights and dignity in death, we can compare our feelings about rats vs our feelings about kittens, and whether or not “cuteness” is a factor in our moral decision-making.

    That said, I do have a certain interest in this discussion as it might pertain to Kant or other ethicists, and in challenging my own thoughts and feelings by changing the context – but just given the particulars of this situation I don’t know if that’s the point here.

    (Kant, BTW, being the 18th century man he was, had a particular view of animals, their ability to reason, and the resulting definition of their “rights” that would be hotly contested in this day and age. He also had no idea what a taser was, or YouTube … which brings me to my next point).

    Personally, I have no use for rats – and the only opinion I have about what to do with them post mortem has to do with public safety and disease control. I’d say that’s true of my opinion of any animal, but in the credenza right to my left as I write this are two nicely crafted wooden boxes containing the ashes of our dear departed cats – proving that logic and sentiment are often irreconcilable.

    On the other hand, despite my hatred of rats, I do not like to see them suffer. I had two friends who had snakes – one used to buy mice by the dozen and throw them, live, into the freezer to keep as food. This kept me up at night. The other would buy live rats one at a time and put them in the terrarium with the boa – but if the rat survived more than 24 hours, she would let it go. Better, I guess – a little more in keeping with natural law.

    Of course, I’m only one person. Sometimes we cause great suffering to animals out of some presumed necessity – factory farming, for example, which led to my recent transition to vegetarianism. I have not completely sworn off meat – I just don’t eat it at this time – but I don’t think I’d have a problem raising chickens for food, or going hunting.

    The factory farming thing is one thing, but the glee that some people derive of seeing animals suffer is quite another. In fact, the torture of small animals – even pulling the wings off of flies or burning ants on a sidewalk with a magnifying glass – is a big red flag of caution for the potential sociopathic behavior we just witnessed in Florida.

    I don’t know about the morality of tasering rats except that I personally find it to be disgusting at best, indicative of deeper problems at worst. Far worse, for me, was the fun and laughter those kids seemed to be having, and worse yet is the fact that this guy has 16 million subscribers to his YouTube channel – 450,000 of whom have watched the rat video (I wonder what that number was before people started talking about it?)

    I guess the most disturbing part of this, in the big picture, is that the rat-tasering behavior has become just as big a news story as the shootings in Florida – and yet, despite the sick glee people derive from this aberrant behavior (Logan Paul and his followers, not Nikolas Cruz), the solution to school shootings continues to be “gun control”. The quick headline sound bite on the hourly NPR updates is a talking point. “The shooter has been to court, blah, blah, blah, … with a gun that he legally purchased”. Nothing about his Facebook posts, nothing about his emotional problems, nothing about his inability to control his temper, nothing about his distance and alienation, nothing about his violent outbursts. To us, I guess, the political hot potato is gun control – despite the fact that so-called “gun violence” is down by half over the last dozen or so years – including mass shootings like this one.

    No, the way in which we deal with Logan Paul and his followers (looking at the bigger picture of their own mental state) is that “YouTube should have tighter regulations” – as if it’s YouTube that has caused this behavior in the first place.

    YouTube has a set of pre-determined standards of behavior that are billed as “community guidelines”. They are following those guidelines with Logan Paul – who is blocked from monetizing some of them and disallowed from posting others. The problem is not the web site or its regulations – it’s the 16 million subscribers.


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