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Dangerous Motives

“Utilization” is goal-oriented, and what is used in the process may, rightly or wrongly, be seen by the agent as merely instrumentally valuable. Adding in a selfinterested motive is straightforward in the case of an individual: the person uses something or someone as a tool to achieve some personal advantage. Talking about motives takes more care when speaking about groups, particularly when members of one group utilize members of another group for their advantage.

If belonging to a certain group is an important part of who I am, I feel a kinship with others in that group and typically want them to thrive. When my selfconception as a group member is strong, threats or harms to other members feel deeply personal. Similarly, I can be especially delighted when others in the group receive some improvement in their situation. This role of group membership in one’s self-conception can appear in various actions, responses to events, and ways of talking without being explicit in the person’s mind. Even with no change in my own life, “we” have made headway if some in the group have received substantial benefits; “we” have been humiliated if some have been treated with contempt. There is a conception of “our interests” that refers to the collective interests of the group, but this does not mean interests shared by every member. If being a woman is important for Jill’s self-conception, she may speak of its being “in our interests” to legally ensure maternity leave, even if she has never borne or adopted a child and is determined not to. Some of “our interests” are not literally self-interests of the individual speaking, but given the role of group membership, the paradox evaporates. When members of a privileged group with social power have a self-conception involving that group membership, they too are motivated to “promote their interests,” and that motivation can function without self-awareness. Now add to the mix a long tradition of such a powerful group’s members using members of another group for their own benefit, where these uses involve both intentional acts and also habitual actions that pass under the moral radar screen of the agents. There is, then, the motivation not only to promote individual self-interest by continuing this long tradition, but also to promote the interests of the group in the same fashion.

Where group membership is vital to my self-conception, furthering the interests of the group or a portion of the group is significantly analogous to classic, individual self-interest, even if I do not benefit in the easily visible sense. I am not simply a compassionate and caring observer, trying to do the right thing. When someone acts in the interests of the group she identifies with, there is a personal investment, so to speak, in what happens. The physical self may or may not be involved, but the sense of self, the self-conception, is.

The familiar dangers with any motivation that is akin to self-interest are, first, the inappropriate self-favoring at the expense of others, or here, favoring one’s own group at the expense of another group (especially one used for “our” benefit), and second, the proliferation of “uses” of others, if indeed the others are in practice readily usable. Although the welfare proviso is intended to limit the kinds of uses made, the fact that utilization is in principle acceptable is itself a motivation for a never-ending quest to use the others in as many ingenious ways as possible, always providing the proviso can be met. There is a mindset of utilization at work. Such moral dangers increase when the group’s interest being promoted does not involve me directly, since I am likely to be far less aware of any self-serving motivation here than in situations where the self-interest is purely individual, and I will probably be challenged less often by those around me, given the appearance of altruism. As with other group biases, a speciesist person is not crudely and blatantly selfish. These dangers arise when humans use cats and dogs for human benefit, if our membership in the group (humans) carries significant psychological weight for us.

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