William Baxter

William Baxter, from People or Penguins, reprinted in Larry May and others, Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach, Prentice Hall, 2011, 5th edition, pp. 181-185.

William Baxter adopts a classic libertarian stance and argues that the welfare of animals is entirely dependent on human interests. He states four assumptions that lie behind his conclusion:

1. People should be free to do as they wish short of interfering with the interests of other humans.
2. Conservation is necessary since resources can never satisfy the needs of all humans.
3. Every human is deserving of respect and fairness in the application of the community’s rules.
4. Every human is entitled to a decent minimum of wealth to avoid permanent privation.

Baxter maintains that a clean environment is a means to the end of fulfilling human interests–not an end in itself. He holds that animals need not be preserved for their own sake: they need to be preserved only for the sake of humans.

Baxter admits that the position is selfish [based on self-interest], but he claims that no other position corresponds to the way people actually think–that is, corresponds to reality. He notes that clean air benefits both humans and animals.

Since neither animals nor plants vote on the community’s rules, they do not possess rights. Only humans are capable of asking ought [moral] questions. Some humans claim to represent animals and plants, but Baxter asserts that no humans are the special representatives or proxies of animals and plants.

Baxter claims that there is no correct state of nature to which humans must return.
Pure air is not an appropriate goal; rather, an optimal state of pollution is an appropriate goal. To lower pollution, we must pay the cost of less food, shelter, education, medical care, and music. A balance between an acceptable level of pollution and a desirable level of food, shelter, etc. can be struck.

Note: Baxter states a project of ethical theory when he observes that, if you disagree with his particular judgements on clean air and water, you may very well have a more fundamental disagreement. You are likely, for example, to disagree with Baxter’s criteria or assumptions when you disagree with his particular judgements. If you disagree with his particular judgments, Baxter points out, “the task will then be yours to identify the basic set of criteria upon which your particular judgements rest.” Baxter here describes an important feature of ethical theory: an invitation to each person to identify and examine the assumptions of his or her judgements.