Friday, August 14, 2009

Brian Leiter's Curiosity Killed the Cow

Brian Leiter has reported the results of his poll about attitudes towards veganism (parodied by me here), along with his own view. He says, wait for it . . . wait for it . . . vegans should be tolerated but they're making a moral mistake. Why? According to Leiter, because most non-human animals "live in the moment," and so using them in ways that don't cause them to suffer pain does them no harm. Here is a brief response:

1) There is very little evidence that non-human animals with central nervous systems in fact "live in the moment," nor is it even clear what that could mean, as time as experienced by living beings is not quantized. Even so-called "momentary" pains and pleasures have extension over time. In any event, Leiter appears to concede that it is an empirical question which animals fall on the "live in the moment" side and which fall on the extended consciousness side with humans and elephants. But given the common ancestry of complex organisms on Earth (unless Leiter is endorsing creationism), and given what anybody who has ever had a dog knows about how the dog will anticipate the arrival of persons to whom the dog is attached, it would be surprising if the sorts of animals commonly consumed for food--cows, pigs, chickens, fish, etc.--"lived in the moment."

2) Even if we were to grant that most animals commonly consumed or exploited for food and other products live only in the moment, and therefore that the only interest they have is that we do not make them suffer, that concession would lead to something very much like veganism. I know quite a few vegans who say that they would not, in principle, be opposed to using animal products such as eggs and milk, or even opposed to killing and eating animals if they were used and slaughtered painlessly. That happens not to be my view (because I think it quite clear based on most of what science teaches about animal behavior that the relevant animals do not "live in the moment") but I respect and understand the view: The truth is that the vast majority of animal products offered for consumption in the United States and beyond are the result of enormous animal suffering. If you doubt that there is an enormous amount of animal suffering produced by the animal industry, you can see a tiny fraction of it documented here. And if you think that none of this applies to the animals that are treated relatively better than those on factory farms, look here.

3) Leiter makes other arguments against veganism, all of which are addressed in a vast literature (very briefly described here) with which he appears to be unfamiliar. If he were familiar with it, he couldn't possibly make the claim that vegans do not "have any arguments that can appeal to shared background attitudes." Nearly ALL of the animal rights literature appeals to shared background attitudes, especially the very one with which Leiter begins:
"Since animals are sentient, it seems there ought to be a moral obligation not to inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on them." The claim of ethical vegans, based in actual facts as opposed to speculation about hypothetical animals hypothetically used or killed by hypothetically painless methods, is that nearly all of what humans purposely do to animals for food and clothing inflicts gratuitous pain and suffering.

4) In the end, what appears to drive Leiter's annoyance with vegans is resentment: He resents what he takes to be an attitude of moral superiority by vegans. I can't speak for all vegans, but for myself, I disclaim such an attitude. Of course the facts and arguments that led me to become a vegan are facts and arguments about animal wellbeing, not about animal-wellbeing-as-it-relates-to-Michael-Dorf, and thus when I conclude that I have a moral duty to be a vegan, I think that everyone has such a moral duty. But that doesn't mean that I look down upon non-vegans or think they are evil. I used to be a non-vegan and I have enormous fondness and respect for a great many non-vegans. I can even say that most of my friends are non-vegans. It is simply an inevitable fact of living in a pluralistic society that people will hold different views about what is morally permissible, and not just about superogatory duties but about obligatory duties as well. In older language, I hate the sins, not the sinners. I also understand that the sinners believe they are not sinners and they believe that I am making a mistake. My response is to try to live my life as I believe I ought to. I've had better luck doing that as a vegan than in other respects. For example, I'd like to be able to drive less and give away to those who need it more of what I have than I do. When I'm challenged about my veganism (as vegans almost invariably are when, for example, eating with non-vegans) I try to patiently explain why I am a vegan (and, okay, to mock Leiter's poll and occasionally engage in what is likely counter-productive sarcasm, but that's just because in addition to being a vegan, I'm also a wiseguy).

Posted by Mike Dorf

19 comments:

michael a. livingston said...

I think the most interesting point here is the comparmentalization of knowledge. Leiter's arguments are phrased almost entirely in terms of the work of (human) philosophers. But he does not discuss the work of biologists who, presumably, can answer questions such as what animals feel, whether they miss things that have left them, can imagine things that haven't happened yet, and so forth (presumably the answers would vary for different kinds of animals). Perhaps there would be a value in bringing these different groups together, if it hasn't been done already?

Craig said...

Michael, a step in the right direction is the recent and fascinating book, Wild Justice, written by biologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Peirce. Many people writing and thinking in the area already draw upon the scientific literature, especially the field of cognitive ethology (e.g., Frans de Waal). Philosophers have also discussed the relation between animals and morality in light of evolution, for instance, James Rachels's Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. Patrick Wall's short book, Pain, discusses how pain is processed by the central nervous system and the brain. The clear implication is that all beings with central nervous systems and brains experience pain in more or less the same way. More advanced readers might want to consider Patrick Wall and Robert Melzack's Textbook of Pain, going into its fifth edition.

There has not, however, been widespread collaboration between people working in the humanities and social sciences ("animal studies") and those working in the sciences, in large part, I would wager, because we tend to distrust one another - I can't even get my seminar on "animal studies" into a biology lab to show them what animal research looks like first hand!

Sherry F. Colb said...

Mike Livingston makes a great point. One cannot, starting from first principles, gather information about what cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fishes, and other animals experience. Therefore, one must "assume" (in just the way the Odd Couple used that term) that animals lack important aspects of awareness and consciousness in order to conclude, as Brian does, that it is acceptable to kill them and to fund their torture and slaughter by consuming their products. And as Craig suggests, many scientists are uncomfortable with collaboration, perhaps in no small part because they are very invested in using animals in research. For a terrific book about what animal behavior tells us of animals' subjective consciousness, I would recommend "Pleasurable Kingdom," by Jonathan Balcomb. We can tell a lot about animals' capacities for feeling, thinking and planning from the ways in which they evidence pleasure and joy, which this book discusses quite beautifully.

Brian Leiter said...

1. You do not understand the distinction between synchronic and diachronic well-being. If you're interested, do read the paper by David Velleman I reference. The question about whether most animals enjoy anything more than synchronic well-being is partly empirical, partly conceptual.

2. I had understood the distinctly vegan position to be that hedonic considerations alone were not enough to require avoidance of animal products, but the vegans you describe are then closer to Singer-style vegetarians, against whom no arguments were given in my brief posting.

3. Referencing a literature and giving arguments are two different things. I did the former (mostly). I am aware there are replies to some of the arguments I gave, but the ones I am familiar with strike me as feeble and/or unsuccessful. It might be worthwhile discussing those arguments, it might not. But we would have to talk about arguments. Mr. McFarlane, whom you keep citing unfortunately, is a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect--in this case, he's a sociology graduate student who has a longstanding complex about people who actually know something about philosophy, me included (he's been posting brainless insults aimed at me for years now). (For amusement, though, you can look up some of his exchanges at the Crooked Timber blog with philosopher John Holbo.) In lieu of arguments, he waves his hand at some animal rights literature. I will wave my hand at Peter Carruthers's book, which is quite decisive on whether there is a deonotological argument for animal rights (so it seems to me). Mr. McFarlane's comment on my use of Singer is typically idiotic: I know Singer is not a vegan, but hedonic considerations are widely thought to motivate moral obligations to animals (as you, Mike, appear to accept). They do not, however, seem to be sufficient to motivate veganism, which was my point (but see #2, above).

4. I do not resent vegans--you and Sherry are now the only two vegans I think I actually know, and I like you (well, I liked you better before this, but I'm sure once we meet with President Obama everything will be fine again). I think vegans who believe that their lifestyle is morally obligatory or morally superior to non-vegan lifestyles have made a moral mistake. That's all.

Brian Leiter said...

Sorry, typo in #3, above: not "the former (mostly)", but "the latter (mostly)."

Michael C. Dorf said...

Just three abbreviated points in response to Brian:

1) It strikes me that if the argument from "synchronicity" relies at all on conceptual, as opposed to empirical, claims about non-human animals, then it is not especailly relevant to the underlying moral question. But as I said, even accepting that animals simply live in the moment, I do not see how that entitles us to cause them to suffer in a series of moments.

2) That said, in due course I'll look at the Velleman paper to see whether I'm missing something here.

3) Brian, I'll take you at your word that you have read a sufficiently large portion of the animal rights literature to judge it feeble. (I was simply using the link to McFarlane as a shorthand for referencing that literature. I have no idea what he has posted elsewhere.) I find the arguments there compelling. What explains the difference? On this point, I'm with Posner (in his Holmes Lecture, which is marred by a number of technical errors but is, I think, fundamentally correct in its core causal observation:) People's judgments about morality are ultimately (and appropriately) much more responsive to experience, facts, and emotions than to pure rational argument. Thus, I suggest that if you (or anyone else) really wants to know whether eating and wearing animals and animal products are consistent with your moral views, watch Earthlings (linked in my main post) rather than reading another book (pro or con). I'm not saying that knowing how animals are actually treated will turn everyone vegan. Obviously the people in the industry itself are almost entirely not vegans. My point is simply that a big chunk of our disagreement is about facts, not philosophy.

4) I didn't mean so much to psychoanalyze you as to identify a common reaction to veganism or any non-standard ethically-based practice. It can seem "holier than thou." My point is that this is inevitable even when not intended. (All will be made clear over that beer.)

Michael C. Dorf said...

Obviously, that's 4 points. I set out to make 3 and then thought of another at the end.

Craig said...

Brian, when you stop saying silly things, people (myself included) will stop pointing out that what you say is silly. Of course, my personal opinion of you (which based upon the frequency of your visits to my site, you must take quite seriously) is not relevant to the issue at hand.

There are two issues:

(1) The presentation of "veganism" in your poll, which amounts to a presentation of "veganism" that no vegan would recognize; viz., your repeated reference to dietary concerns. This is the substance of my first post on your poll.
(2) Your subsequent post regarding your position vis a vis veganism. Perhaps you have carefully read the relevant arguments and perhaps you have carefully considered them, but on the basis of your post, no such familiarity is visible; viz., your discussion is centred on Peter Singer who does not argue in favour of a normative veganism. Further, to the best of my knowledge, Regan, Franklin and Francione do not argue on the basis of "hedonic considerations." This is the substance of my second post on your poll.

I would point out that you do raise important issues, but these are issues that have already been raised by vegans relative to Singer (among others); viz., the difference between suffering and painless death, inconsistency with respect to capitalism and other systems of organized misery, and the like. You are further correct in your comment here that many people take Singer as the relevant authority (a perception that Singer himself appears to dishonestly cultivate through encouraging the description of his book as "the Bible of the animal rights movement"). Again, your post is perfectly reasonable relative to Singer and to those who mistakenly believe he argues in favour of veganism. Unfortunately, this has no bearing on a vegan argument. As such, what you say is completely irrelevant to any discussion of veganism.

Generally speaking, it is my understanding that when you aim to argue against a position that you properly articulate the position you are arguing against. Making reference to Carruthers is perfectly legitimate. However, you missed the requisite steps wherein you outline your understanding of those who argue the deontological position (e.g., Franklin, Regan and Francione). Given that you did no such thing, the only possible conclusion is that you are not, in fact, familiar with the relevant literature. Which, again, is perfectly acceptable - so long as you don't go around judging without first being informed.

Sherry, unfortunately the only widespread classroom collaboration between humanists/social scientists and scientists that I am aware of has been where humanities students are co-taught by a biologist and a historian and where the final project involves the simple manipulation of genes.

Brian Leiter said...

Mike, I agree with the Posner point (which is vindicated by a lot of the social psychology literature by Haidt et al.)--and it was actually Nietzsche's point first! This is why, qua strategy, vegans and vegitarians are no doubt shrewd to utilize photos of the disgusting treatment of animals (and it is why anti-abortionists, of course, use disgusting photos of aborted fetuses). By arousing people's emotions one is much more likely to affect their attitudes and practices than with a "rational" argument. But so it goes in morals...

Michael C. Dorf said...

Brian, I don't know whether we're agreeing on this point but to be clear about my position: Moral reasoning is PROPERLY informed by emotions, including moral sentiments. Thus, I think that pro-life activists who show pictures of aborted fetuses are not just scoring propaganda points but putting morally relevant facts in view. Sometimes this is misleading, as when the grisly reality of an abortion at 30 weeks is used to generate moral outrage about abortions at very early stages of fetal development, when there is no evidence of fetal sentience. And of course, a pro-lifer could be right that later fetuses have moral standing but we still might conclude either on sexual equality grounds or autonomy grounds that the moral decision whether to have an abortion ought to be left to individuals.

Similarly, scenes of slaughterhouses could be misleading. Perhaps animals that appear to be suffering are simply making sounds as inanimate springs do. This was the view of Descartes. It strikes me as wildly implausible but I admit it is a theoretical possibility in much the same way that I admit the theoretical possibility that I am a brain in a vat being tricked into thinking I'm having real experiences.

My point (which is consistent with that of Posner, who does credit Nietzsche) is that moral intuitions are activated by emotions. To reach sound moral judgments we need reason but also emotions and knowledge of actual facts. Indeed, with respect to emotions, there is strong evidence that the emotional centers of the brain play a vital role in rational decision making. See, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/qo45pf

Jamison Colburn said...

I thought that was Hume's point before it was Nietzche's!

michael a. livingston said...

I definitely can feel a conference coming on here (with vegan food being served of course . . .)

酒店ㄚ君姐姐 said...

,,,,,,,,,姐.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Linda said...

It's terrific to see these issues debated here. Yes, a conference! I'd also like to point out that farming practices have changed so dramatically that even if it was morally acceptable for our parents/grandparents to eat meat, the same moral conclusion may not follow now. As Earthlings illustrates, most farming ain't the bucolic paradise with a short period of pain I remember from visiting my grandparents. And, for the record, I agree with Mike that neither moral subjecthood (or being a being worthy of moral concern) nor moral reasoning should depend on a purely cognitive capacity. Of course articulating exactly what it SHOULD depend on is exactly the interesting philosophical question, and I haven't found a satisfying answer yet. Mostly in the animal rights literature I've found utilitarian, aristotelean or kantian positions replayed in this context where none seem particularly fitting. Not surprising that they don't seem to fit, of course, since these positions start with a concept of what is essentially human and then set out to describe what moral duties then adhere. Pain and pleasure, of course, are common ground with animals, making the utilitarian position the most transferable, but I don't think we would treat the pain suffered by sled dogs as the same as the pain suffered by veal calves. So, I find utilitarian approaches unconvincing for the reasons I also do for humans. It seems to me that the problem of animals will eventually cause us to change our very conception of ourselves as moral subjects. And that is one of the most interesting philosophical aspects of the question for me. So, even though I aspire to be vegan, I think the moral principle still needs elucidation. Only humility here.

J&D said...

情趣用品/情趣

正妹視訊/網頁設計/情趣用品

情趣用品/情趣用品/情趣


威而柔/自慰套/自慰套/SM/充氣娃娃/充氣娃娃/潤滑液/飛機杯/按摩棒/跳蛋/性感睡衣/威而柔/自慰套/自慰套/SM/充氣娃娃/充氣娃娃/潤滑液/飛機杯/按摩棒/跳蛋/性感睡衣/

自慰器/自慰器/煙火/影音視訊聊天室

色情遊戲/寄情築園小遊戲/情色文學/一葉情貼圖片區/情人視訊網/辣妹視訊/情色交友/成人論壇/情色論壇/愛情公寓/情色/舊情人/情色貼圖/色情聊天室/色情小說/做愛/做愛影片/性愛/

Rey said...

I've found it impossible to reach others through taking the stance of "animals suffer." People are raised and indoctrinated very well not to care about the suffering of their food sources. My best friend, who was a vegetarian until recently, chewed me out for wanting to take my partner to a theme park that has elephant rides. She told me about all the horrible things that happen to the elephants and said that I would be part of their suffering if I went. Then she told me she was going to $2 Taco Tuesdays.

She shrugged and said "well you can't win em all."

Now if I give ecological facts and statistics, I'm almost always met with a nod of agreement. But everything ends at the nod, it's not powerful enough to change their minds. Yet the "suffering," point always falls flat. How to reach people on a moral level? How to help them feel that transformative empathy?

"Well there is suffering in nature. What's the difference between a fox killing a hen and a factory doing it?" Well humans are a part of nature as much as much as a stapler is a part of a desk. There are many things that occur in nature which we would be seen as destructive and unacceptable in society. We can't pretend we are nature doing what nature does.

And a fox eats to live, we murder millions of creatures and pollute the environment because we think it tastes good.

There was recently a post on reddit.com (the site that lead me to your blog), of a video of chicks being ground up alive. I couldn't watch it; the thumbnail of little yellow tufts about to be pushed into a gridner was enough to ruin my morning.

My coworkers were reviled when I showed it to them, and I guranatee you not a single one of them would stop eating chicken or skip the Peking Duckling when they go out to chinese food. Even when some of them have glimmers of insight and empathy into the suffering of other creatures, they dismiss it.

Those moments of realizations seem to stick to too few of us to turn into a lasting resolve. I do get discouraged at times.

Ryan Kent said...

Minor correction: The word is "supererogatory," not "superogatory."

喜洋洋 said...

高雄縣徵信商業同業公會
南部徵信聯盟
外遇觀測站
大愛離婚諮詢網
離婚大剖析
大愛徵信有限公司
尋人專家徵信服務網
女人徵信公司
華陀徵信
離婚協助中心
跟蹤蒐證徵信器材網
抓姦觀測
大愛徵信
溫馨徵信
成功徵信社

喜洋洋 said...

高雄縣徵信商業同業公會
南部徵信聯盟
外遇觀測站
大愛離婚諮詢網
離婚大剖析
大愛徵信有限公司
尋人專家徵信服務網
女人徵信公司
華陀徵信
離婚協助中心
跟蹤蒐證徵信器材網
抓姦觀測
大愛徵信
溫馨徵信
成功徵信社