Friday, October 02, 2009

Is it Wrong to be Right for the Wrong Reason?

By Mike Dorf

For those of you who couldn't get enough of the extended mid-August debate on carnism versus veganism (e.g., here, here, here, here, and in the comments and links therein), Brian Leiter has a follow-up (here), in which he opines on the result of a poll conducted around that time by Luis Chiesa.  Chiesa asked the readers of his blog why they were vegans (if they were).  A majority said it was because killing animals is either always wrong or wrong absent exigent circumstances, and that there is no exigent need for animal products for food, clothing or cosmetics.  Only 19% of respondents (which translates into 24% of the vegan respondents) selected the answer that emphasized the unjustifiably cruel treatment of most animals raised for food, clothing and cosmetics.

One can quibble with the choices.  As one comment noted, there is a strong moral case for veganism as one means of mitigating environmental harm to the planet, and thus to humans and non-humans alike; yet that was not one of the options.  I would also note that Chiesa's suffering-based answer had a little preface ("Because although killing animals painlessly is not necessarily wrong") that may have scared off some people who otherwise would have chosen it.  Still, for purposes of this post, I'll assume that the results of Chiesa's poll would more or less accurately reflect the views of vegans.  He did give "other" as one possibility.  Now on to Leiter's observations.

1) Credit where credit is due: Leiter acknowledges that the primary reason I was emphasizing in our exchange--not wanting to inflict unnecessary suffering--is a "more plausible view" than the one he was criticizing.  Prudence would probably counsel stopping there and declaring victory, but I'll go on nonetheless.

2) Leiter also criticizes the roughly 30% of Chiesa's respondents who said that killing animals is always wrong as embracing "an extraordinary proposition."  Presumably the criticism rests on the supposition that even killing humans isn't always wrong.  E.g., it's morally permissible to kill a human in self-defense.  I agree with that supposition, which is to say that I am not a pacifist.  I would have no moral qualms about killing a human or non-human in self-defense (although I'd likely find the experience traumatic).  Thus, I too would not have chosen Chiesa's "always wrong" option.  Still, I want to suggest that it's not entirely surprising that 30% of this self-selected group would choose the "always wrong" option.  Some fraction of these respondents probably just didn't think the question through, but the others might well be pacifists.  I would bet that a much higher proportion of vegans are pacifists than one finds in the general population.  Given that the people we are talking about are also vegans, they are committed to questioning the human/non-human line, and so it's not surprising that their pacifism would spill over into their views of the morality of killing non-humans.  All of that is a long way of saying that given the context, the objection here has to be to pacifism as such.  I'm not interested in defending pacifism, a view I don't hold, but I don't think pacifism can simply be dismissed.

3) Leiter goes on to conclude that the vegans who object to all or most killing of animals as such hold views that are morally abhorrent and/or baseless.  Why?  Because he previously argued that death as such is not harmful to most non-human animals.  If one agrees with that argument, it follows that vegans are mistaken in thinking it morally important to avoid causing the deaths qua deaths of those animals.  The vegans who think it always wrong to kill animals, moreover, would be committed to saying, for example, that it is wrong to kill a rattlesnake about to bite (and thus kill) a defenseless human baby.  That is what Leiter has in mind by a morally repugnant view.

4) Yet in our earlier exchange, Leiter himself acknowledged that his own Epicurean argument leads to the conclusion that death is not a harm to a human infant.  I am tempted to say that people who live in reductio ad absurdum houses shouldn't hurl charges of moral repugnance.  I won't succumb to the temptation, however, because, as I said, I'm not committed to the pacifist view.

5) Nor are most vegans, as judged by Chiesa's poll.  We find that 68% of the vegan respondents to Chiesa's poll easily avoid Leiter's charge of moral repugnance.  The most popular answer--that killing animals is wrong except in exigent circumstances--would clearly allow killing the rattlesnake to save the baby.  Whether, and under what circumstances, it would also allow for killing and otherwise harming animals in scientific research for medicines, etc., is a question that will likely divide vegans in this larger group, as I also noted in our earlier exchange.

6) Of course, Leiter still thinks that the plurality answer--killing animals is wrong absent an exigency--is morally mistaken, though presumably not repugnant.  His conclusion rests on his argument that death is not a harm to most non-human animals (or to human infants), which is, at the very least, controversial (and has in fact been controverted on this blog, e.g., here).  But let's say for the sake of argument that Leiter were right--that death as such is not a harm to most non-human animals (or to human infants).  Would it still follow that the vegans motivated by the wrong reason hold views that are, as he puts it, "morally baseless?"  That would depend on the answer to the question that titles this post.  Or, to put the question somewhat more precisely: Are one's views baseless if they lead to correct results via faulty reasoning?

7) Let's approach that question by an analogy.  Suppose I ask my hypothetical religious friend Steve why he thinks that the deliberate killing of a human being without justification or excuse is wrong.  Steve answers: "Because the Bible says 'thou shalt not kill'."  This reason, I say, is inadequate, because the Bible also says a lot of other things that we think are downright pernicious, such as that adulterers should be stoned to death, a punishment that we now recognize as disproportionate and inhumane.  So the Bible, by prescribing some immoral conduct, cannot be the measure of morality.  If Steve were to insist that stoning adulterers is obligatory, we would have grounds to say that he holds morally repugnant views.  But suppose Steve were instead to say something like this: "I don't accept every prescription in the Bible as literally correct, but where Biblical morality accords with my own strong moral intuition, I follow Biblical morality; otherwise, I interpret the Bible as metaphor."  I think it would be fair to criticize Steve's reasoning under these conditions as flawed: His own moral intuition, rather than the Bible, is doing the real work.

8) However, it would not be fair to criticize Steve's ultimate view that murder is immoral as morally baseless.  If we think there are sound moral grounds for believing that murder is immoral, then those grounds provide a firm moral basis for Steve's view.  It just happens that Steve doesn't realize what the best basis for his view is.  Likewise with respect to veganism.  Even if we grant Leiter's highly contestable claim that death qua death is not a harm for most non-human animals, the people who are vegans because they (by hypothesis mistakenly) believe that death is a harm to such animals have a sound moral basis for veganism (though they don't realize what that basis is) if veganism is morally justified on other grounds, such as anti-suffering or environmental reasons.

I offer the foregoing observations simply in the spirit of clarification of Leiter's argument.  There may well be a usage of the term "morally baseless" that depends on the reasons an actor believes justify his actions, but in ordinary usage (as I understand ordinary usage) the phrase connotes something stronger and, in this instance, unwarranted.


Derek said...

Part of this might depend on what counts as "Steve's view." If Steve's view is that *murder is immoral*, then I think you're right---we couldn't describe his view as "morally baseless" without contorting ordinary usage.

But if we think of his view as the broader proposition that *murder is immoral only because the bible says so*, then it seems more plausible to say his view is morally baseless. There is nothing about morality, for the sake of this hypothetical anyway, that grounds that more complex claim.

If Leiter was thinking of "vegan views" in the former, narrower sense, then he's probably wrong (for the reasons you give). If he was thinking of them in the latter, broader sense, then he's probably right. But then he's giving more of an ad hominem argument targeting some vegans' moral reasoning (or just regular reasoning) skills, not an argument undermining veganism per se.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Hi Derek,
Part of the difficulty is that people often misunderstand the causal grounds for their own beliefs. Thus, many people who are both progressive and religious will attribute their core moral principles (e.g., don't kill, steal, lie, etc.) to Scripture, even as they reject Biblical prescriptions and proscriptions they find objectionable. This phenomenon is not limited to religious grounds, obviously. Neurological studies show people doing things before forming reasons for doing so and then developing post hoc rationalizations. I suspect some sort of mis-attribution may be going on with the vegans who report their motivation as the principle that it's always wrong to kill animals. Most pro-vegan organizations proselytize by depicting horrifying scenes of animal suffering because they judge that such suffering will motivate some people to change their views and behavior. Having said that, I should add that I do not find persuasive Leiter's argument that death per se is not a harm to most non-human animals, and so I think that choice 2 in Prof. Chiesa's survey is a reasonable one. (I am closer to persuaded that death per se is not a harm to any living being, including humans, but I think that very bad consequences would follow from the widespread acceptance of that belief!)

Sherry F. Colb said...

I think it worth revisiting the peculiar (and, for most people, wildly counter-intuitive) conclusion that death is not a harm to animals because it can in theory be painless. I have noticed people who defend the consumption of animal products coming back to the "painless death" idea as though it were any part of how animals anywhere are changed from sentient living creatures to slabs of muscle and bodily fluids to be sold to consumers. The truth is that one need not separate the infliction of pain and the infliction of death in criticizing the consumption of animals, because both of these things are ubiquitous and unavoidable and go hand in hand.

The notion of a painless death -- borrowed from the euthanasia context -- has no application to the production of flesh and other animal products. Animals are not only generally abused and treated without mercy (something that even avid carnists seem to acknowledge); they are made to suffer agony as a routine part of "processing," whether they live on a factory farm or a family farm. Some farms torture their animals more (or constantly) on the way to killing them painfully, and others torture them intermittently. On even supposedly "humane" farms, however, male cattle are de-horned and castrated without anesthesia, because it is not profitable to do otherwise. Given this background norm of even the supposedly "humane" standards of animal husbandry that prevailed prior to the advent of factory farming, can anyone doubt that the killing process is terrifying and excruciating, as it in fact is?

The evolutionary reality for all sentient species is that pain is a built-in, automatic mechanism that has come about because it signals a threat to the animal's life and thereby generates a strong inclination to try to escape. The animal who feels pain and successfully escapes is able to survive. In other words, death of a young, sentient creature is naturally "designed" to be painful, because pain is a great motivator of avoidance. In the real world, then, to separate death and pain requires work -- either the use of anesthesia or some other method of quieting the normal response to threatening a creature's life. Such methods of killing cost money and time and therefore, from the perspective of someone whose goal all along is to turn someone into something, not a worthwhile investment, especially at the very end. This might explain why, in their travel to the slaughterhouse, cows and other animals are typically not given food or water for days. Why bother?

Because the deaths of real animals in the real world (on even small, organic farms) are painful and terrifying, and because their lives prior to that include periods of agony, inflicted by human beings to turn a profit, any assertions about theoretically "painless deaths" at the slaughterhouse are worse than delusional. They offer consumers of animal products the deceptive (and plainly alluring) notion that supporting animal agriculture by consuming animals and their products is consistent with refraining from unnecessary cruelty.

Sherry F. Colb said...

On the question of whether it is wrong (or morally repugnant) to suggest that one should never kill a nonhuman animal, even to save a human life, I will simply make an observation. To criticize vegan pacifists for being unwilling to kill an animal to save a human being is to assume that situations in which a nonhuman, sentient animal poses a threat to a human life represent a significant moral category, worthy of discussion. Though violence in self-defense or defense of others is, by most lights, justifiable, the occasions on which killing a nonhuman animal will save a human being's life are few and far between (except in fanciful hypotheticals). Perhaps we should therefore reserve moral judgment for those who dwell on make-believe painless deaths as a hypothetical means of justifying what is, at bottom, entirely gratuitous, merciless violence, ending in terrifying and painful death, that ultimately kills more human beings through cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases of kings than any killer of a nonhuman animal could ever hope to save.

Sherry F. Colb said...

One last thing. The notion that whether death is a harm to a sentient being turns at all on whether a being is synchronic or diachronic is so counter-intuitive as to make one wonder how anyone came up with this as a criterion in the first place. (One possibility is that some philosophers believe that being diachronic is what gives value to their lives, although this is only a guess, no less speculative than many philosophers' assumptions about what nonhuman animals are and are not capable of thinking). If a being who has a complex life plan is killed, one has frustrated the life plan, but so what? The being in question no longer knows that his life plan is frustrated. We certainly don't take it upon ourselves to carry out all unfinished life plans, no matter how earnestly held. Many people have no life plan -- not just infants (whose lives are, in a moment of refreshing honesty, acknowledged to be just as worthless to themselves as the lives of animals are to them, if one takes this diachronic/synchronic position). Most people believe that death is a harm to the one who dies because he wants to continue to live (and because third parties want their loved ones to continue to live), and those desires are hardly unique to human beings (as anyone who has spent any time in the company of a real animal knows). In short, while some may accept the view that a nonhuman animal's life has no value, independent of an interest to be free from suffering, the foundation for this view is implausible on its own and leads necessarily to outrageous consequences (such as the permissibility of painlessly slaughtering babies). Were a painless death more than a conceptual mirage, there would, accordingly, still be more than sufficient reason to reject the position that painlessly killing a healthy nonhuman animal is a distinctively harmless act.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Re: 7)

The analogy is weak if we choose to imagine, in a more plausibly theistic fashion, Steve reasoning as follows: "Because the God of the Bible says, 'thou shall not kill' and God's essence is by nature moral and rational, the deliberate killing of another human being (sans justification or excuse) is wrong. God's commands reflect his essential nature, which is wholly and perfectly good (the solution to Euthyphro's dilemma proffered by Augustine and Aquinas, among others). Now if the Bible says other things (even putting them in the mouth of God) that Steve believes are pernicious or immoral, he's perfectly free to understand such things as not worthy of God and thus reject them, for Steve is concerned not only with idolatry, but 'bibliolatry' as well! So GOD is the measure of morality (not the Bible), and thus our endeavor to follow his will ('thy will be done') necessarily entails the use our critical rational powers to determine God's objective moral order (i.e., both what it is and how we should act--hence the 'counsels of perfection,' for the fact that we are created in the 'image of God' permits imatio dei: 'Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,' which is akin if not identical to the Godwinian notion of perfectibility, that is, the imperative of moral and spiritual growth--the struggle to be more God-like--has no terminus ad quem).

Submission to God's will, on this account, is thus perfectly compatible with a person acting autonomously, that is, acting freely in the full light of individual intuition and reason. In conclusion, we need not hold your hypothetical religious friend mistaken as to the causal ground of his moral beliefs.

I offer this in light of the response to Derek in which the claim is made that "many people who are both progressive and religious will attribute their core moral principles (e.g., don't kill, steal, lie, etc.) to Scripture, even as they reject Biblical prescriptions and proscriptions they find objectionable." I don't think this is accurate, for the attribution is not to scripture as such so much as it is to God, and thus the alternative account sketched above would be closer to describing the ground of such a moral belief. Therefore our "progressive and religious" theists have not misunderstood the causal ground of their moral principle(s).

Paul Scott said...

Sherry beat me to it, so I want to just post in agreement vis-a-vis death qua death. I do not see death as a harm to the creature being killed - future plans and their cognition not withstanding. The foreknowledge of that death can be a harm. The pain (emotional and physical) concurrent or preceding death can be a harm. But this is true of human and non-human animals alike and does not at all relate to the creature's ability (or purported inability) to conceptualize itself as living through time. The harm in death is to those that cared about the creature being killed and/or to society as a whole. And, as before, this is true of both human and non-human animals and is true without regard to any ability to conceptualize oneself as living through time.

I think (and suspect this is the actual origin) that it can be viewed as a harm if a religious/spiritual perspective is considered. But for those that don't believe in things with all the factual basis of invisible garden fairies, death is the termination of all interests - including an interest in one's own life.

Paul Scott said...

If the attribution of morality is to God rather than Scripture then they are still wrong, just for different reasons.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


Please explain to me why the theist is mistaken as to the causal ground of his moral beliefs.

And as to your first comment: there are some notable philosophers who "don't believe in things with all the factual basis of invisible garden fairies" and yet view death as bad for the one who dies ('harm thesis'), as well as those DO NOT see death as "the termination of all interests - including an interest in one's own life," hence the "posthumous harm thesis" in which it is argued that posthumous events may harm those who have died (cf. the discussion of the 'harm theses' in Steven Luper's The Philosophy of Death, 2009: 97-121).

Now you may not agree with either thesis but folks who've argued for them could hardly be said at the same time to believe in things like (i.e., 'with all the factual basis of') "invisible garden fairies."

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I should have said "Paul" but it's a bit late and I'm trying at the same time to listen to the Dodger game.

Paul Scott said...

"Please explain to me why the theist is mistaken as to the causal ground of his moral beliefs."

Because something that does not exist cannot form the moral basis for anything.

Paul Scott said...

Yeah, I have been flipping back and forth between this and the Dodger game as well - while sitting in a cafe in Minsk. :)

losing six out of their last seven games (assuming they win one of the next two) is not the most encouraging way to enter the post-season, but really, it is all that matters.

I was supposed to be at tomorrow's game, but last minute plans find me out of the country instead. :/

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I'm beginning to see why Brian Leiter thinks your contributions are not worthy of Dorf on Law.

You did not answer my question, which was straightforwad and rather simple: the theist of course believes God exists, and you were asked to explain how the theist is mistaken as to the causal ground of his moral beliefs. One need not be a theist, as I am not, to understand the question.

Paul Scott said...

I didn't mean my last reply to seem so flip, btw. All I mean is that basing one's morality from Scripture is perfectly cognizable - the Scriptures do, very clearly, exist. But as Mike's logic proves - those that think they base their morality from the Scriptures are certainly mistaken.

If, however, the supposition is that Morality is based on the will of God then proof of God's existence is mandatory to the basis of that morality.

Paul Scott said...

Belief in God is insufficient to claim that one's morality is based on the will of God. If God does not exist, then at best a person who claims to base his Morality on the will of God is mistaken and is instead basing his or her morality on his own morally held beliefs reflected, perhaps, by his belief in God.

But for the will of God to be the basis of a person's morality, the God must exist.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

My last comment:

The theist does not arrive at a belief in God through reason and logic, ask Pascal (for who the nature and existence of God are beyond discursive reason: 'the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know at all') or Kant ('I WILL that God exists...'). The theist, typically, comes to his belief in God as a consequence of being raised in community of religious (or better: spiritual) praxis.

In any case, many things do not admit of "proof," and especially those things that are best described as pre-, non- ,or para-rational. It's likewise important to keep in mind that any axiomatic structure is based on reasons that, in some sense or measure, are arbitrary, at least insofar as they serve as basic or first principles and thus are not susceptible to "logical proof." Relatedly, as Nicholas Rescher has said, "philosophy cannot provide a rational explanation for EVERYTHING, rationalizing all of its claims 'all the way down.' Sooner or later the process of explanation and rationalization must--to all appearances--come to a halt in the acceptance of unexplained explainers."

Michael C. Dorf said...

Patrick says my analogy to the person who cites the Bible is weak because the religious person COULD be citing the Bible only as prima facie evidence of (what he takes to be) God's will. Thus, selective invocation of the Bible would not be inconsistent with the claim that Scripture is the basis for a particular moral belief. But this shows at most that my analogy is unrealistic, not that it's weak. Patrick has added the claim (which may well be true for most religious people) that when a religious person cites "Scripture" he really means "God's will." In my example, however, the religious person believes that Scripture always and accurately reflects the will of God but also believes that some things the Bible commands are wrong--perhaps because of ignorance of what the Bible actually says. For what it's worth, I think that a fair number of people DO think about the Bible in this way. To give yet another analogy, I often hear from non-experts things like "we should follow the Constitution" as a justification for doing something they think the Constitution commands even as they have quite mistaken views about what the Constitution contains with respect to other matters.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


Perhaps in this instance we might say an unrealistic analogy is a weak one.

Be that as it may, I admit to missing in your original example the qualification that "the religious person believes that Scripture always and accurately reflects the will of God but also believes that some things the Bible commands are wrong." And I'll concede, and thus agree with you, that this may often be empirically true. However, as I said, I made my comment in light of your reply to Derek in which you referenced, specifically, "many people who are both progressive and religious," and I suspect that this is NOT the case (namely, 'that Scripture always...some things the Bible command are wrong') at least with respect to THESE folks! So, again, if they reason in the manner I suggested above, it would seem they do not misunderstand the causal grounds of their moral beliefs.

Bob Hockett said...

As ever, I find myself learning a great deal from Mike, Patrick, and Sherry. Thanks for all of this, folks.

One additional brief thought here: Call me a simpleton, but it seems to me that any creature that regularly flees death just is a creature for which death is, eo ipso, a harm. If that isn't true, I don't know what claim about the welfare or illfare of any living creature is. Surely the only live question in any case involving death is whether the harm that is death is nevertheless justified by some additional consideration. And of course sometimes it is, sometimes it ain't.

I tried back in August to give a somewhat sympathetic response to a somewhat sophisticated set of theses, advanced in a pair of articles by Velleman, that could be taken to support a claim to the effect that death is a harm to human but not nonhuman animals. I hope that any unclarity in my August post was resolved in my replies to the comments below it. But how ever satisfactory or otherwise the argument there, the best 'argument' might really be an unsophisticated one like the simple observation just made. Death just is the limiting case of harm to any living being.

At some point explanations must come to an end. We all know the game upon which most children at some point stumble - mischievously replying with 'why' or 'so what' to every answer provided by a parent in a chain of justification for some command: 'Brush your teeth.' Why? 'In order to prevent decay.' Why? 'Because if your teeth decay they will fall out.' So what? 'It will be harder to eat without teeth.' So what? ...

This game can easily arrive at its penultimate step with something like, 'beacuse if you don't eat you will die.' To which the child still can say 'so what?'

In the best case scenario, it is hard for me to see 'so what?' in response to an animal's death as any different from the child's in this game. In the worst case scenario, it is hard for me to see it as any different from what a more troubled child might say as he blandly kills frogs.

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