Monday, August 17, 2009

When You've Got a Hammer

In my recent post on Brian Leiter's post on veganism, I took issue with the distinction Professor Leiter drew between "synchronic" well-being and "diachronic" well-being. In his post, Leiter had characterized the former as "constituted by pleasant and unpleasant experiences at particular moments," and said that most non-human animals (perhaps excepting elephants) were merely synchronic. I attempted to strip away the jargon by simplifying this to the two-fold assertion that: 1) non-human animals live only in the moment; and 2) that therefore we do them no harm by killing them painlessly. I contested point 1) as factually inaccurate and then went on to note that even if 1) were true, in fact the overwhelming majority of animals that are exploited and consumed for food and clothing are not killed painlessly and are badly mistreated for just about their entire lives.

In the comments on my post, Leiter contended that I simply did not understand the distinction between synchronic and diachronic. He invoked the work of philosopher David Velleman for the proposition that this is not simply an empirical but also a "conceptual" distinction. So I went to Velleman and found that Leiter was right. I had mistakenly inferred that Leiter and Velleman had been making points about actual animals (and thus actual vegans), rather than the concept of animals (and thus the concept of vegans). For Velleman and Leiter, "conceptual," it turns out, means "imaginary." In getting his argument about the difference between humans and non-human animals going, Velleman says (at page 81 of The Possibility of Practical Reason) the following: "Consider a nonhuman animal, such as a cow or a pig. I assume that a cow cannot perceive of itself as a persisting individual and consequently cannot conceive of itself as enjoying different benefits at different moments in its life." The assumption is apparently constitutive of non-human animals for Velleman (and thus for Leiter).

Having been properly informed, I am now ready to concede: 1) Imaginary cows, pigs, and other non-human animals cannot conceive of themselves as persisting individuals; and 2) On the imaginary farms where the imaginary cows, pigs, and other non-human animals are treated humanely their whole lives and then unexpectedly and painlessly zapped by a death ray, the imaginary animals do not experience any harm other than the deprivation of future pleasure (which, Velleman says, those particular animals can't experience anyway, because they cannot persist as beings).

No doubt I have missed some important subtlety here, but even if so, I think this little exercise illustrates a larger point that a number of other commentators made on my earlier post: Philosophy as a discipline limits its relevance when it bases arguments on counter-factual assumptions. Philosophy is hardly unique in this respect, however.

Consider economics. If pressed, most economists will concede that the assumption of rational actors is not intended to model human behavior perfectly, but will say that the rational actor assumption makes pretty good predictions in general and very good predictions in some contexts. But even though most economists understand the counter-factual nature of the rationality assumption at some level, they often forget it when talking about real-world issues. For example, in a recent Planet Money podcast, U Chicago B School Professor (and economist) Emily Oster engaged in the following colloquy (which I am paraphrasing for simplicity rather than quoting in full):

Q: Why are restaurant meals bigger than they used to be?

Oster: Because food got cheaper.

Q: But why didn't restaurants keep portion sizes constant and lower prices?

Oster: Because people really like to eat.

Q: But isn't all that extra eating costly because obesity is unhealthy?

Oster: Not nearly as costly as it used to be, now that people have desk jobs that don't require them to move very much and we have medical treatments that extend the lives of obese people.

Oster's first two answers make sense but the last one is an example of the phenomenon under discussion: She forgot to state (and perhaps simply forgot) the limits of the rationality assumption. Undoubtedly, there are some people who somewhat discount the cost of an unhealthy diet because they're banking on statins, liposuction and bypass surgery. But a truly rational actor would surely know that a healthy diet will lead to much better overall health than these measures--and indeed, millions of people in fact make that calculation: They consciously try to limit their intake of unhealthy foods but are unable to control themselves (because human beings developed the tastes we have under conditions of scarcity in which occasional binge eating was helpful). The feeling of having one's super-ego (urging restraint) at war with the id's appetite is so familiar, that only someone too enamored of her model could so grossly mischaracterize the fattening of Americans as simply a rational act.

Having trashed the myopia of philosophy and economics, I should add that I live in a glass house. We in the legal academy who spend some portion of our time analyzing judicial decisions know from political science and simple observation that legal reasoning as such does not account for all of what's going on in contested cases, and that in the most highly watched Supreme Court cases---about abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, gun rights, school prayer, and other hot-button issues--ideology no doubt accounts for the lion's share of results. Sometimes we make this point, at least as a caveat, but at other times we write as though judges would reach correct results simply by reading our brilliant articles, regardless of their particular ideological predilections.

My point is not that philosophers, economists, and legal academics should always couch every sentence in their academic work with a caveat about the assumptions being made. Within disciplines, it is surely an acceptable shorthand simply to make the assumption. However, when speaking to a wider audience, the disclaimers need to be made: Leiter is talking about hypothetical animals; Oster is talking about hypothetical obesity; and we legal academics (myself included) are talking about hypothetical judges. Such hypotheticals can have relevance for the real world, but only to the extent that the models work. Leaving out that caveat can be quite misleading.

Posted by Mike Dorf


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Outside of the specifics on this post, I've got a (probably stupid) question:

    Suppose I live on 10 acres and I have pet hens. They run around and do whatever they want, just like my dogs. Now suppose I typically eat the eggs they lay (we have no roosters in this scenario).

    Is this an example where I am still *morally* a vegan, or is a true vegan viscerally offended by the very idea of this habit -- the same way we all would be about say, eating something on the human anatomy?

    Bear in mind, I'm not looking for "gotchas"; I'm merely trying to more fully grasp the moral components at play.

  3. Others may disagree with me, but my feeling is that vegans who are vegan for moral reasons as opposed to dietary or other reasons will object to the practice. This connects being vegan to animal rights. A standard distinction in this literature is between use and treatment. In short, animal welfare positions look to the treatment of animals while animal rights positions look to the use of animals. Brian Leiter's example of a painless slaughter is an animal welfare position. So long as animals do not undergo any "unnecessary suffering" or "inhumane treatment," then our use of animals is perfectly justified. This seems to be the case of the chickens in your example. (Peter Singer addresses this very point on his book finding in favor of using the eggs.) This is not the case for the animal rights position. The argument would be something to the effect that you have those chickens because they produce eggs. That is, your relation to them is instrumental and, accordingly, they are treated by you as your personal property. Animal rights usually argues that ownership in animals in contrary to their rights. The same argument would be made about your dogs (i.e., they were bred into existence to be used as personal property of the owners - having said that, most vegans who have pets get them from shelters and are often involved in shelters themselves).

  4. Thanks Craig...

    The argument would be something to the effect that you have those chickens because they produce eggs.

    I could cut it finer though. Suppose they're first and foremost my pets, and they happen to lay eggs. Is my only option as an advocate for animal rights to let the eggs rot?

    Animal rights usually argues that ownership in animals in contrary to their rights.

    Does this mean that if I'm an advocate for animal rights, I must always leave the door open to give my dog the option of living freely (away from me)?

  5. Egads, Mike, you really made a mess of this! "Conceptual" has nothing to do with "imaginary." If we ask whether a human or non-human animal is "harmed" by death, we need to understand what constitutes "harm": i.e., we need to understand hte concept of "harm" we are using. The concept of harm is tied to other concepts, like that of well-being--thus, we may also need to understand the concept of well-being we are using when we say that death makes someone worse off.

    You may contest Velleman's assumptions about animals, but that has nothing to do with a dispute about what's conceptual and not.

    I used to think of you as someone with a friendly interest in philosophy, but, wow, this is really something.

  6. As issues are cut finer, clear answers are harder to come by! In part we are caught between two situations: the empirical situation wherein animals are property and are legitimately used by humans and the ideal situation wherein animals should not be property and should not be used by humans. In the ideal situation, you would not have the chickens at all, thus rendering the issue of their eggs a moot point: either they'd be fertilized and produce new wild/feral chickens or they would be fertilized and another animal would eat them. In the empirical situation where you have chickens we come up against the problem of wastage: obviously, these present calories, nutrients and protein that could be used by another being while causing minimal harm to the chicken. The solution, I think, would be to collect them and then use them as feed for the pig you rescued from the nasty farmer down the way. Of course, as the chickens die off, they shouldn't be replaced, unless you are providing them sanctuary from the nasty farmer down the road.

    As for you dog, you already have him and are bound to provide the best possible care for him. Upon his death, you should not start reading the classifieds for breeders offering new puppies. If you must have a dog (on average, there is no less than one and no more than three dogs in my house), then it should be adopted from a shelter. Given the present environment, the dog would either die of starvation, be run over or caught by an animal control officer. (In the case of the last situation, should the dog be traced back to you, it is conceivable that you would be held accountable under animal welfare laws; e.g., failure to provide adequate water, food, shelter and medical attention.) Again, the solution to this is that new pets should not be produced. However, given that pets are being produced, those presently in existence deserve the best possible treatment.

  7. Brian,

    Let's see who has made a mess of what with a little review.

    1. You said that non-human animals, with the possible exception of elephants, are only "synchronic," which you said meant that they are "constituted by pleasant and unpleasant experiences at particular moments."

    2. I summarized this as claim that non-human animals "live in the moment." I said the claim was empirically false.

    3. You then said that I didn't understand the meaning of synchronic. You said it was only partly empirical, but also partly conceptual. You cited Velleman.

    4. I looked up what Velleman had to say. His argument for the conclusion that death is not a harm to non-human animals, it turned out, rested on the express ASSUMPTION that non-human animals such as cows and pigs lack the capacity to conceive of themselves as persisting individuals, the very assumption I had earlier said was empirically false.

    5. I therefore ridiculed the argument you had made by saying the following: "For Velleman and Leiter, 'conceptual,' it turns out, means 'imaginary.'" Most readers, I assumed, would understand that I was not saying that I thought that the words "conceptual" and "imaginary" are literally synonyms.

    6. My assumption may have been right about most readers but it turned out to be false about you. You missed the sarcasm and so you concluded that I am indeed just that big a dope.

    7. I do acknowledge that conceptual analysis of terms like "harm" and "well-being" could indeed lead to the conclusion that death is not a harm to non-human animals, or to humans for that matter, pace Epicurus (as you noted in your post). The main point of most of my comments and posts--which you have been assiduously avoiding addressing or even acknowledging--is that even if so, animal SUFFERING (as opposed to hypothetically painless death) is a harm to the animals doing the suffering, and that given the reality of animal agriculture, that suffering provides sufficient grounds for veganism.

    8. "Philosophy," Wittgenstein said, "leaves everything as it is." Others have said in the same vein that philosophy can help us clarify our concepts but not more. Let me suggest that if philosophy were to so "clarify" our concept of harm as to lead to the conclusion that, say, producing veal calves for immediate separation from their distraught dairy cow mothers does no harm to the calves or the mothers, then I would indeed be willing to change my interest in philosophy from friendly to hostile.

  8. On the thought-provoking exchange between egarber and Craig, I have a few thoughts. I agree with the proposition that much turns on whether you are keeping the hens as companions (which many people have done and in the process have noticed how intelligent and social these creatures -- in the real world -- are) or as sources of eggs. That said, one fact that might be considered in the mix is that hens, for the most part, do not simply lay eggs and leave them in the field. They sit on the eggs and become upset when people take them away. Nevertheless, at least one animal sanctuary with which I am familiar collects the eggs, boils them and feeds them back to the hens. As it turns out, the hens are severely calcium-deprived because they've been genetically modified to produce so many eggs. By eating their own eggs (however odd), they are able to regain some of their strength. This, I think, is a variant on Craig's example of giving the eggs to a rescued pig.

  9. Prof. Dorf,

    Re: point (4) of your rejoinder to Leiter, I don't think you ever said the assumption that non-human animals lack the capacity to conceive of themselves as persisting individuals is false. You said something it (in a sense) implies - that animals "live in the moment" - is false, but that's not the same thing. In fact, I think you're working with the wrong sense of "live in the moment." The evidence you gave for thinking animals don't live in the moment - e.g. that dogs get excited when those they know return - suggests, not that dogs "live beyond the moment" qua conceiving of themselves as persisting through time, but rather that they live beyond the moment qua having memories. But they could live beyond the moment in this second sense without living beyond the moment in sense 1. So you still haven't refuted Velleman's argument, which, just be clear, I take it is:

    (a) Actual (not "hypothetical") cows and pigs cannot think of themselves as persisting individuals (as "living beyond the moment" in sense 1).
    (b) If an entity cannot conceive of itself as a persisting individual then it cannot conceive of itself as having enjoyed or going to enjoy (or, for that matter, enjoying) a particular benefit.
    (c) it is (pro tanto) permissible to kill (painlessly) those that cannot conceive of themselves as enjoying different benefits at different moments in life
    So, (d) It is pro tanto permissible to painlessly kill cows and pigs (and, mutatis mutandis, other non-human animals, as well).

    Maybe you never intended to refute this argument - you're point (7) about you and Leiter speaking at cross purposes is well-taken - but don't think your observations about animals "not living in the moment" suffice to do so.

  10. I may well have missed the sarcasm/humor, so I'm sorry if I misconstrued your intentions. I am relieved you're not confused about the conceptual and the imaginary. The issue about well-being concerns diachronic well-being, which I still think you do not understand. Velleman's hypothesis is that what makes death bad for humans is that our well-being is, in part, diachronic, whereas that of non-human animals (or human babies, I should add) is not. There is no empirical evidence contradicting this for all or even most non-human animals. There is some evidence that is suggestive that this may be wrong about a minority of animals (the best case studies I've seen concern elephants). But since diachronic well-being requires cognitive capacities of a relatively high order, it would be surprising if it turned out most non-human animals were capable of it: unlike us humans, they don't, e.g., write autobiographies, plan for the future, draft wills, and so on. Their well-being is temporally bounded quite significantly. That is why they may have a moral claim not to be caused pain, but not, per Epicurus, a moral claim not to die at human hands.

    I have nowhere disputed that factory farming causes suffering to non-human animals. (Peter Carruthers does deny it, by the way, for reasons that never struck me as persuasive.) But I have been interpreting veganism as the moral demand to consume no animal products, even if they resulted from a process that caused no suffering to sentient creatures. As the otherwise hopeless Mr. McFarlane noted (credit where credit is due!), Singer, a hedonist, does not think these considerations lead to veganism. He may be wrong, at least under current conditions. I have no view on that.

  11. I think we're finally nearing closure. I'll presume to speak for Brian as well as myself in saying I hope we are! I'll make three final points.

    1) There is a pronounced tendency among humans to treat those characteristics that we identify in ourselves as just those characteristics most deserving of moral respect. Before we knew how chimpanzees and various birds fashioned tools (even from raw materials unfamiliar to their species), we claimed tool-making ability was the sine qua non. The ability of Koko the gorilla, Alex the parrot and other animals to speak and understand human (signed and spoken) language in quite sophisticated ways led those who didn't feebly try to discredit these studies to move off of language use as the separator. Diachronic well-being strikes me as simply another reverse-engineered criterion to distinguish us.

    2) What perhaps saves diachronic well-being from this charge is its apparent moral irrelevance. After Angus left his comment (which I retrieved while eating with my family at a terrific new vegan restaurant in Ithaca!) I thought I'd reply by saying that with a sufficiently stringent requirement of diachronicity, even human babies wouldn't qualify. But see today's NY Times at (which says that human babies are much more sophisticated than you might think. As with non-human animals, human babies don't use language in the same way that human adults do, and so we tend to under-appreciate their mental and emotional lives.) In any event, Brian beat me to the punch by noting, to his credit, that indeed under a stringent requirement of diachronicity, it does not harm human babies to kill them painlessly. Nobody who was simply trying to come up with a criterion of harm that would distinguish between humans and non-humans would design a theory that says it harms no one to apply the death ray that instantly and painlessly vaporizes a human orphan (with no other relatives or caregivers who would mourn his or her loss). This example seems devastating to the theory if it is to be more than a purely academic exercise.

    3) There is a mismatch between the philosophical literature--which distinguishes sharply between animal rights and animal welfare--and the practice of actual vegans. Nearly all vegans I know (and I now know quite a few) are concerned about the actual conditions under which animals are raised, exploited and killed. Our beef (speciesist pun foreseen but not intended) with animal welfare organizations that promote so-called "humane farming" is not that we oppose improving the lives of farm animals, but that we think the measures actually undertaken do almost nothing, and may be counter-productive insofar as they give people a false impression of animal agriculture. For most people in the movement, the question about painlessly killing humanely raised animals is as entirely hypothetical as I hope the question about the permissibility of painlessly killing human orphans would be for Velleman and others. I would guess that most vegans would still oppose such a practice, even if possible, because we would not make stringent diachronicity a criterion for the right of existing creatures to continue to exist absent compelling reasons (e.g., self-defense against an attacking lion) to kill them.

    And there I am content to rest.

  12. Just a quick point regarding your #2. It is correct that if death is only bad for creatures that are capable of a conception of their diachronic well-being, then it does, indeed, follow that death is not bad for infants (or fetuses): their death may be bad for others, but it isn't bad for them. If that is a reductio of the view that what is bad about death is that it harms diachronic well-being, then we will need some other explanation for why death is bad, that is, for how to respond to the Epicurean challenge. And I do think reductios cut all ways in these debates: after all, hedonism about well-being, like Singer's, does lead straightforwardly to the views for which Singer is loathed by disability rights activists. Some might think that a reductio of hedonic conceptions of well-being, or even an argument for speceisism (I am inclined to that view, but only tentatively), but then the vegan/vegitarian argumetns are in even more trouble.

  13. I admire Brian Leiter, but I am disappointed by his most recent comment. The reason this debate began was because of the postings on his blog about veganism, in which he argued that the painless killing of animals was morally acceptable because animals lack diachronic well-being. Now however, when the same standard is applied to human infants, it turns out he is unprepared to accept it. Rather he hopes there is an “argument for speciesism” that will somehow rule out painlessly killing some members of our own species on the same grounds.

    If that is the case, it means that the argument Leiter originally offered against veganism collapses, as he does not actually hold that a lack of well-being, by itself, justifies painless killing. As Bernard Williams once noted, in every philosophical essay, there’s the part where the philosopher makes the claim, and the part where he takes it back. Blogosphere debates it appears are no different.

    Prof Leiter also suggests Peter Singer’s views on infanticide represent a reductio of Singer’s views on animals, without appearing to have thought through the implications of such a remark. If Singer’s view on infanticide is a reductio, then the argument Leiter made in his veganism posts is even more so, as it licenses even more forms of infanticide that Singer’s philosophy. Singer confines his examples to severely disabled unwanted infants. Leiter’s diachronic standard would license killing any unwanted infant, disabled or not.

    The point about Singer’s argument being based on hedonic conceptions of well-being is a red herring. Singer has made more than one argument for the ethical status of animals, only one of which involves a utilitarian appeal to hedonic well-being. One can endorse Singer’s non-utilitarian argument, which appeals to the equal consideration of interests, without necessarily endorsing his views on infanticide.

    Where Leiter is on stronger ground is in pointing out the difficulty of responding to the Epicurean challenge. But this is not a challenge for vegans alone. It is a challenge for anyone who opposes various forms of killing, including infanticide and killing people with severe forms of amnesia and other disabilities that prevent them from being aware of themselves through time. If Leiter is prepared to offer “tentative” considerations as to why he does not accept such forms of killing, he should be less critical of vegans grappling with the same issue in a different area.

    I myself doubt that any speciesist solution is available to the Epicurean challenge. Indeed, it is striking that every argument for speciesism to date has been shown to have major problems. This is true of Peter Carruthers, whom Leiter mentions with approval. Problems with Carruthers’ argument have been so widely noted he’s become a bit of a punching bag in the animal debate (I think his contributions to other areas of philosophy are much stronger and are what he will be remembered for). For a small sampling of the criticisms, see the many references to Carruthers in Evelyn Pluhar’s book Beyond Prejudice, David DeGrazia’s book Taking Animals Seriously, and a 2001 essay in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, “Carruthers and the Argument from Marginal Cases.” (Carruthers has retracted a chapter of his animal book, but these critiques focus primarily on the unretracted material).

    In comments prior to his most recent one, Leiter endorsed the idea that we have an obligation to take animal suffering seriously. He also says he believes factory farming causes animal suffering. If so, then on Leiter’s own account, there is no justification for the great majority of meat eating that takes place in our society. That seems a far more important point to stress than any problems with veganism.

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