Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Animal Rights, Violent Interventions and Affirmative Obligations

Posted By Sherry F. Colb

Monday of last week, I had the honor of hosting Professor Gary L. Francione here at Cornell Law School, where he gave a lunch workshop to my colleagues and then lectured to the students in my Animal Rights seminar.  Both the workshop and the classroom lecture were fascinating and engaging, and they each exposed the audiences to important ideas and arguments that might have previously been unfamiliar. 

In this post, to shed light on some of the issues that arose in the faculty workshop,  I want to focus on some of the questions that my colleagues posed to Professor Francione.

Are We Really All Michael Vick?

About three years ago, when many people were expressing outrage about Michael Vick’s cruelty to dogs, Professor Francione published an editorial entitled “We’re All Michael Vick.”  In it, he argued that what offended so many people about Michael Vick’s behavior toward dogs is morally no different from what most of us do every day:  inflict terrible pain and death on animals for purposes of our own amusement.  Michael Vick enjoyed watching dogs fight, and others enjoy chewing on the flesh and reproductive products of nonhuman animals.

The only salient differences, Professor Francione argued, are the species of the tortured and killed animals (dogs versus pigs, cows, chickens, etc.) and the fact that Michael Vick committed his acts directly while the rest of us, in consuming animal products, pay others to do so.  As I recently suggested in a letter to the editor of the International Herald Tribune here, dogs are not morally distinguishable from the animals whose flesh and products we consume.  And as our law reflects, paying someone else to inflict harm does not reduce one’s responsibility for the harm inflicted. 

The article about Michael Vick gave many readers the opportunity to think about what Professor Francione calls the “moral schizophrenia” of our ethical norms with respect to nonhuman animals.  In some contexts, we are outraged by animal cruelty inflicted to serve transparently frivolous objectives; in other contexts, we find such cruelty unremarkable and engage in it ourselves.

One of my colleagues questioned the analogy between Michael Vick and the rest of us and suggested that such an analogy is like equating a deliberate murder, on the one hand, and a car accident in which the driver accidentally runs over and kills someone, on the other.  This colleague added that the grandmother who buys and prepares a turkey for Thanksgiving could not possibly be comparable to Michael Vick, could she?

Professor Francione responded to the question by emphasizing that in both sorts of cases, someone is inflicting pain and death for a trivial purpose, whether that purpose is entertainment by watching a dog fight or entertainment by chewing on flesh.  This emphasis is important.  Because time was short at the workshop, however, I want to elaborate a bit here.

The question posed by my colleague really divides, I think, into two different questions:  First, isn’t consuming meat analogous to an accidental homicide, while conducting dog fights is more like an intentional homicide?  Second, isn’t it counterintuitive to compare Michael Vick, whose dog-fighting operation repulsed so many of us and led to a criminal conviction, to the friendly grandmother who cooks a turkey for the holidays?

Murder and Manslaughter?

To the first question, I would point out that when we consume animal products, we inflict harm and death on chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals that is no more accidental than the harm and death that Michael Vick inflicted on dogs.  While vehicular manslaughter represents an accident (resulting from negligent driving that created an unreasonable risk of death to others on the road), the creation (and accordingly the consumption) of animal products inherently inflicts great suffering and death on sentient beings.  Everyone who consumes animal products, including the flesh of turkeys, thus intentionally and knowingly participates in making nonhuman animals suffer and die.  People who drive negligently, by contrast, do not intentionally or knowingly hurt anyone.

Some readers might respond, “But wait!  The grandmother does not enjoy the fact that a turkey was hurt and slaughtered, but Michael Vick does enjoy the fact that dogs were harmed.”  This distinction is flawed for two reasons. 

First, Michael Vick might well argue that he never enjoyed the dogs’ suffering and death; he enjoyed the competition and drama of the fights.  Though the suffering and death involved was inevitable and known, in other words, Vick could plausibly say that he found both regrettable, just as the grandmother might find the turkey’s pain and slaughter regrettable as well. 

In both cases, the objective of the activity is the pursuit of an unnecessary pleasure, and in both cases, the infliction of harm and death are inherent in the activity and understood by the participants.

Even if one insists, moreover, that Michael Vick was truly being sadistic toward the dogs killed in fighting, while the grandmother is not being sadistic toward the turkey killed for Thanksgiving, this distinction is far less important than that which differentiates murder from involuntary manslaughter.

In both dog-fighting and turkey consumption, there is intentional infliction of suffering and death on animals (either directly or by paying someone else to inflict the harm).  The difference between sadistic killing and killing for a pleasurable product is accordingly like the difference between someone who kills another human in a terrifying and painful way because he likes watching people suffer and die and someone else who kills another human in a terrifying and painful way because that is the only way to steal the victim’s property.  The harm inflicted is equal in both cases, and each is supported by indefensible reasons.

Second, there is a real distinction in play, but it is not a difference between the respective moral status of what Michael Vick and the grandmother each do.  It is instead the difference between the people, Michael Vick and the grandmother, a distinction that reflects how the sorts of people whose violence includes only what is socially permissible differ from the sorts of people whose violence breaches socially accepted boundaries. 

Committing violence against a turkey in order to consume the turkey’s flesh is, in today’s world, considered acceptable, whereas committing violence against dogs in the U.S. in order to enjoy the spectacle of a dog fight is, outside of some subcultures, not considered acceptable.  A person who commits unsanctioned violence is likely to be socially and characterologically deviant in ways that extend beyond the particular violence, whereas a person who commits only sanctioned violence is not.

Consider an analogy from the period of our country’s history during which human slavery was legally protected and accepted.  At that time, a person who was otherwise normal and even kind might have participated in the violence of chattel slavery.  To put the point more directly, a kindly grandmother – of the sort who would today slaughter and prepare the body of a turkey for family members on Thanksgiving – would also, if sufficiently wealthy, buy a slave and later sell that slave’s children to a different owner.  She would use violence (or the threat of violence) to prevent the escape of her human property, though she – like those who today buy “free range” turkeys – might perhaps use no more violence than “necessary” to accomplish her purposes.

There is nothing about the 1785 slave-holding grandmother, in other words, that would allow us to identify her as a sociopath or a generally evil person, in the way that there would likely be something identifiably wrong with anyone we found engaged in holding and selling humans as slaves today, when such behavior is universally condemned as a human rights violation.

Stated differently, part of why the grandmother who cooks a turkey for Thanksgiving is not like Michael Vick is that the surrounding society accepts and applauds the grandmother’s conduct while it frowns upon and condemns Michael Vick’s.  Nothing about these social practices, however, provide a morally tenable distinction between her behavior and his; it simply marks him and not her as someone prepared to violate society’s norms. 

As Professor Francione suggests, the line we draw between the two sorts of conduct, respectively, is an arbitrary one.  What the grandmother does is no better than what Michael Vick did, even though the grandmother is generally – perhaps – a kinder person than Michael Vick is, when society has not expressly approved and embraced a particular type of unkindness.  If we consider the level of violence inflicted on the animal involved, the intentional and knowing nature of that violence, and the alleged justification that is offered for it, the two acts cannot be meaningfully distinguished from each other.  People need neither animal products nor dog-fighting entertainment to live a healthy and happy life.  They consume one or the other or both because they feel like it.

Must We Then Kill A Person to Save A Tiger and Treat The Tiger for His Cancer?

A second and then a third colleague were interested in pursuing a different line of discussion with Professor Francione.  If animal and human lives are equally inherently valuable, they both asked, do we not then owe it to wild animals to protect them from human predators, with violence, if necessary?  And do we not also owe it to wild animals to provide them with health care and other benefits that we feel obligated to extend to our fellow humans?

Why Violence Is Objectionable, Even to a Non-Pacifist

To illustrate their question about violence, a series of hypothetical examples emerged in which a tiger was threatening a human (and the question was whether it would be justifiable to kill the tiger) or the human was threatening the sleeping tiger (and the question was whether it would be equally justifiable to kill the human).  Professor Francione responded to the violent hypothetical examples as the proponent of non-violence and pacifism that he is.  He said that killing – even to protect life – is generally not justified, but it may be excused.  As a person who is not a pacifist but who does believe in animal rights (including those of both human and nonhuman animals), I want to make a related but somewhat different argument here.

I believe that killing a tiger to prevent the tiger from killing a human is justifiable, in the same way that I believe that killing a deranged or spasmodic but innocent human assailant who poses a threat of killing another human is justified.  If someone threatens your life, you are justified in responding with deadly force.  Similarly, if someone threatens another human, you are also justified in so responding.  By contrast, I do not think it is generally justifiable to shoot at people who are in the process of killing animals.  Does this distinction demonstrate that I think humans have greater inherent value than nonhumans?  Does it commit me to the proposition that consuming animal products is acceptable?  It does not.

The reason that it is not justifiable in most circumstances to kill a person to prevent the death of a tiger is that society has not generally accepted the notion that killing a tiger is murder.  As a socially accepted activity (or at least an activity whose true violence is not yet salient for the overwhelming majority of people), hunting or otherwise inflicting death on defenseless animals is, in most instances, committed by the same sorts of people who are otherwise nonviolent people (when society has not invited them to engage in sanctioned violence). 

To kill such people is not justified and, moreover, would prove counterproductive for anyone who supports animal rights, because it would (unfairly) lead people to identify a peaceful movement whose goal is to protect animals from unjustifiable violence with unlawful violence.  In a context in which the killing of animals for trivial purposes is ubiquitous and celebrated, one can easily save many, many animals’ lives without committing any violence, by adopting homeless animals and providing sanctuary to farmed animals who are no longer a source of profit to their owners (like the cows left to die in piles, unable to get to food or water).

For similar reasons, John Brown and other violent abolitionists are not universally embraced as having acted justifiably.  Brown and others committed murder to free slaves in a context in which slavery was normatively embraced by much of society.  The people killed were, accordingly, likely to be people no different from other people in their inclination to kindness and respect toward others who occupied the widely-accepted circle of moral concern.  Killing such people – slave-holding families – is not justifiable and may have generated sympathy for slave-holders rather than impressing anyone with the justice of the abolitionist cause.

By contrast, if a person today kidnapped and held another human as a chattel slave, it would be an uncontroversial exercise of justifiable deadly force to kill the kidnapper if necessary to rescue the victim.  As mentioned above (in connection with Michael Vick and the grandmother), the sort of person who would keep a slave today is likely to be evil in the way that the sort of person who would have kept a slave in the South in the eighteenth or nineteenth century might not have been. 

This difference, however, between the slave-holder of 1785 and the slave-holder of today does not mean that chattel slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in any way justifiable.  Slavery then was not, in other words, morally superior to slavery now, even though slave-holders then would have been quite distinct in their character from slaveholders now.

To provide an example from a different context, many people in the anti-abortion movement opposed and condemned the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, perpetrated to stop him from performing abortions.  Pro-life opponents of the murder of Dr. Tiller condemned his actions, notwithstanding the fact that they believed that what Dr. Tiller did was morally no different from the killing of a born child. 

In a societal context in which an objectionable form of violence (whether toward sentient beings or toward embryos and pre-sentient fetuses) is not only permissible and lawful but broadly accepted as normal, the use of deadly force to intervene is morally distinct from the use of such force to stop criminally prohibited misconduct.  Within peaceful branches of historical justice movements (including the abolitionist movement that opposed human chattel slavery and the civil rights movement), this distinction was well understood and did not detract from the underlying equality claims at issue.

Why Health Care For Wild Animals Isn’t Required

In a related but conceptually distinct variant on the question about using violence to protect humans from nonhuman animals and vice versa, a colleague posed the query why, if nonhuman and human animal lives are equally valuable, do we have affirmative obligations to the latter but not to the former.  That is, if one is not a libertarian, then one holds the view that we are under an obligation to take affirmative care of other people – by providing health care or food, for example.  If one holds this view and also believes in animal rights, does that not commit one to the position that we have an obligation to provide health care and food to all of the nonhuman animals who live in the wild and might be suffering?

It is useful, first, to note that accepting the premise that we have affirmative moral obligations to act to alleviate other humans’ suffering does not entail an equation between the direct infliction of suffering, on the one hand, and a failure to alleviate suffering, on the other.  For example, I might take the view that we have a moral obligation to provide health care benefits in the United States.  Nonetheless, I (and most people, I suspect) would distinguish between failing to pass a universal health care bill, on the one hand, and voting to expose some group of people to tuberculosis to learn about the progress of the disease, on the other. 

Our obligations, then, begin with refraining from inflicting harm on others.  For this reason, if one of the doctors involved in a human tuberculosis exposure experiment simultaneously helped cure other humans of the disease, we would still classify such a doctor as doing something horrible, while the person who neither inflicted T.B. nor intervened in curing it would not earn a similar condemnation.

The priority of the rule against inflicting unnecessary harm and violence over the rule requiring affirmative assistance becomes important in assessing whether we owe health care coverage to tigers in the wild.  Because the obligation to offer affirmative assistance is not as great as the obligation to avoid inflicting direct harm, we can decide how and to whom we choose to extend affirmative assistance. 

Even if we were to pass universal healthcare in the U.S., for example, such a law would not provide care to people in other countries, just as volunteering in a soup kitchen in Ithaca does not help poor people in Tallahassee.  In neither example, however, have we assigned greater inherent value to Americans or Ithacans than we assign to people who live in other countries or cities. 

With respect to affirmative assistance, we understand that each of us belongs to many groupings – family, social network, employment, neighborhood, town, city, nation, etc. – and we understandably provide affirmative assistance to those we view as “closest” to us.  When people give to charity, in other words, they are not obligated to treat everyone in the world the same but may instead place a priority on those to whom one feels in closest relation (whether because of family relation, religious community, proximity or similarity of circumstances). 

Family represents an especially salient example of this phenomenon, because not only social norms but the law itself imposes affirmative obligations on us to take care of those belonging to our own families.  No one, of course, would suggest that such obligations reflect a judgment about family members having superior inherent value than strangers.

Just as people in the U.S. do not feel obligated to ensure that every human in the world has healthcare (but might nonetheless believe strongly that citizens of the U.S. should pay to provide healthcare to everyone living in this country), it is perfectly coherent to suggest that wild animals live outside of our community and are therefore not morally entitled to our medical interventions.  The fact that we may refrain from giving health care to wild animals does not, however, mean that we may go out and kill such animals because we enjoy doing so or because we like the taste of their flesh, anymore than our decision not to subsidize health care in other countries entails the notion that we may use people in those countries for medical experiments or as chattel slaves.

A parallel dilemma – concerning the difference between preferring humans and using animals as resources – arises in the “lifeboat” and triage hypothetical examples that often confront those of us who contend that using animals as sources of flesh and skin in the presence of alternatives is unjustifiable.  If you were in a lifeboat with a man and a dog, and you had to throw one of them overboard to avoid having the lifeboat sink, which one would you choose? 

Most people would choose to throw the dog overboard, and opponents of animal rights argue that this preference, if legitimate, somehow means that people may legitimately use and kill nonhuman animals as resources for humans.

The problem with this “lifeboat” argument is that, as with affirmative obligations, we all recognize that in triage situations, we prefer those whom we perceive as “closer” to us or as belonging to some community that we personally value more than other communities.  Most parents, for example, would choose to throw a stranger’s child overboard rather than to throw their own child overboard.  This does not amount to an assertion by the parent that the stranger’s child is not inherently valuable or that the stranger’s child may now be owned as a slave or killed in a non-triage situation.  It simply means that we permit ourselves to prefer those closest to us when we confront an emergency and must make a choice.  When we exit triage, however, we are not entitled to translate our preference into a hierarchy through which we may inflict pain, slavery, or death or those whom we do not prefer, in order to satisfy our appetites.

Very few people on this earth must consume the products of nonhuman animals to live a healthy life.  There is no need, in other words, to eat the flesh of cows, cow cheese, yogurt, butter or milk, the flesh of pigs, sheep, goats, the cheese of sheep or goats, chickens, chicken eggs, turkeys, ducks, geese, fishes, or any other nonhuman animal.  Indeed, plant-based diets are healthier and dramatically reduce the odds of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  They are also delicious and satisfying, which I can say as someone who has occupied both worlds. 

Furthermore and ironically, the commonly invoked hypothetical triage argument has it exactly backwards.  The production of animal flesh and products through animal breeding and farming uses up enormous amounts of water, grains and other sources of plant-based food that could be going to hungry humans around the world.  If we truly prefer the humans in the lifeboat, we ought to stop bringing farmed animals into existence (by demanding their breeding and subsequent destruction).  Eating animal products means directing much of the planet’s limited food and water to farmed animals and thereby leaving an insufficient amount of food for the rest of the planet’s human inhabitants.

Animal agriculture is destroying the planet, by being the main contributor to global warming and by generating pollutants (through, among other things, excrement runoff) that poisons our water.  None of the consumption behavior that pays for animal agriculture – and which inflicts horrible suffering and death on sentient nonhuman animals – serves the interests of humans around the globe.

In short, an ethic that says “cause no unnecessary suffering to animals but prefer humans in triage and affirmative obligation contexts” necessarily means that we stop breeding animals for consumption, that we stop consuming the flesh and products of those who now exist, and that we understand that what makes Michael Vick’s actions objectionable applies beyond dog-fighting to the consumption of the animal products in which most people -- including those who condemned Michael Vick's behavior -- engage.


Charles said...

I have both good and bad news comments for Prof Colb. The good news comment is that I may finally have been pushed over the edge to at least a meat-minimization diet if not pure vegetarianism.

The bad news is discomfort with one component of the vocabulary used in the essay. Throughout, a distinction is made between the "morality" of an action in question and the action's social acceptability. This suggests an objective concept of morality - a concept I have been unable to identify. And while in no sense well versed in formal moral philosophy, I've been exposed to enough of the basic arguments to be skeptical of even the possibility of unmediated access to any such concept even should it exist. So, although I'm not inviting a discourse on the topic, I am curious what concept Prof Colb has in mind when she uses such language. (Unless she agrees that it should be avoided, in which case my interest evaporates.)

I should note that I am not quarreling with strategic use of morality-talk, especially in the political arena. But I would argue that in this sort of forum it is unnecessary, possibly even self-defeating. Since I found the objective arguments sound, they overcame my usual Pavolovian skepticism in response to that language. Other morality skeptics might be less tolerant.

Aside from avoiding the danger of such reactions, an emphasis on objective arguments might also help avoid some unconvincing contentions, eg, the implied moral equivalence between eating a Thanksgiving turkey and promoting dog-fighting. After all, unless one is willing to sign on to ahimsa, a line has to be drawn somewhere. And although I am not competent to construct it, I rather suspect an objective argument can be made that (convincingly or not) distinguishes turkeys and dogs and supports drawing the line between them.

In short, I don't know how to distinguish between "moral" and socially acceptable (notwithstanding easily identifying inconsistencies in what is considered socially acceptable). For obvious reasons, this is an extremely uncomfortable position, but that in no way makes it avoidable. But I do think non-strategic use of morality language is almost always avoidable (although only with some effort) and - at least for me - always more convincing.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Charles raises what philosophers call a "meta-ethical" question: What is the nature of moral propositions? Speaking for myself, I'd take a pragmatist or deflationary approach. Just about any competent speaker of English understands the difference between statements like A) "dog-fighting is immoral" and B) "most people in 21st century America think dog-fighting is wrong." Statement A is normative. Statement B is descriptive.

Moral skepticism--a view that Charles appears to endorse--denies that statements like A have any truth value at all. So dog fighting, torture, slavery, and other practices people condemn as "immoral" aren't, so far as the moral skeptic is concerned, "really immoral," because there can be no such thing. At most, moral statements like "slavery is wrong" express the attitudes of speakers, the skeptic says. Saying slavery is immoral, in this view, is no different from saying that the speaker dislikes slavery in the way she dislikes the taste of cumin.

Is moral skepticism justified? I don't know, nor do I know of any way of answering the question. I do know that my preference for non-slavery over slavery feels very different from my preference for chocolate over vanilla. I would suspect the same is true of Charles (since I have no reason to suspect that he is a conscience-less sociopath). We can bracket the question of whether morality is "real," and still have a fruitful discussion using our ordinary vocabulary, which includes references to right and wrong.

jamesandru said...

Aren't we accepting "morals" equal society "norms"? So killing livestock for meat is moral, killing dogs for spectacle is not, in North America.

It gets into personal opinion if you want to move outside this societal constraint and then, to each their own, no absolutes anyway.

DF said...

I have a different concern about Sherry's comments. First, I like what Francione is doing in a political sense. I take his piece, "We're all Michael Vick" to frame a polemic designed to force reflection on hard moral questions that we would normally leave aside absent some prompting, including very pointed and aggressive prompting.

That said, my concern is that collapsing the distinction between Michael Vick and Turkey Grandma elides important questions of causation. Vick caused animal torture in a direct and immediate manner: by raising animals to fight and then making them do so. Turkey grandma did not, by contrast, raise or kill the bird she served at Thanksgiving. She merely took advantage of the fruits of its torture and killing.

This isn't to say that Turkey Grandma is morally off the hook. I think a very good claim can be made that any marginal contribution to industries that regularly mistreat and kill animals for unnecessary reasons bears moral agency insofar as it marginally contributes to their continued success.

But it's the marginal part that makes the distinction between Vick and Turkey G. It's a difference of degree in many respects; Vick's agency w/r/t the animals he caused to suffer was much more powerful and complete than Turkey G's agency w/r/t the animals whose suffering she subsidized.

But the timing of the actions may also point to a difference of kind. Vick was a prior and but-for cause of the animal suffering in his case. Remove Vick from the causal chain, and those dogs go free and do not suffer (at least not in a way that implicates him morally). But TG comes in only after the fact, so that her absence from the process would at best cause a one-turkey decrease in profits for the industry. And in a consumer society with elastic demand (and ever-expanding gluttony), someone else might snatch up the turkey instead, leaving the net effect of foregoing its consumption inert.

All this said, I radically reduce the meat in my diet for the very reasons suggested in Sherry's column and Francione's editorial--so ultimately, I agree with them that eating factory-raised meat raises concerns that any honest and decent person needs to take very seriously. I'm just not convinced that the degree and kind of moral culpability for continuing to eat meat is equivalent to the moral culpability of actively engaging in animal torture.

So we may all have moral problems to confront w/r/t our treatment of animals, or w/r/t the effects of our diets on the treatment of animals, but that doesn't make us all Michael Vick.

Charles said...

Prof Dorf -

I accept the substance of your description of moral skepticism as I understand it, although in one instance the wording seems a bit dismissive of the position.

In my view, the moral skeptic considers that in the absence of supporting argument, the normative assertion "X is immoral" has no more substantive content than the descriptive statement "I strongly disapprove of X". But I don't agree that the skeptic views either as expressing mere "dislike" at the same emotional level as taste preferences. In fact, in the last paragraph you acknowledge that the non-sociopathic moral skeptic may also have strong "feelings" about X.

The essential difference as I see it is that not knowing how to justify the absolutism implicit in the assertion of immorality, the moral skeptic reluctantly settles for the readily justified statement of disapproval.

Sam Rickless said...

I agree with the points made by DF. Whichever theory of causation you go for (but-for causation is not the best theory of causation, by a long shot, but ultimately this doesn't matter much), the basic fact is that Turkey Grandma does not cause any turkeys to suffer unnecessary harm, while Michael Vick caused dogs to suffer unnecessary harm. This is a critical difference between them, one that commonsense morality recognizes (in the form of the doctrine of doing and allowing).

Prof. Colb will argue that there is a sense in which Turkey Grandma *does* cause turkeys to suffer harm (even if it is not the turkey whose flesh she cooks), inasmuch as she sends a message to turkey carcass producers to kill more turkeys when she purchases a turkey carcass. But even in this case, the "message" is not literally a request. It is merely a sign of demand for turkey carcasses, and a sign to which rational turkey carcass producers (concerned to make a profit in a market economy) respond. This is a far cry from causation of harm.

The reason why those who (for very good reasons, mind you) oppose the killing of turkeys continue to be drawn to this argument is that the best alternative argument is not persuasive. I think the best alternative argument starts from the principle that it is wrong to benefit from the wrongful acts of others. This principle condemns Turkey Grandma (even if it does not necessarily *equate* what she does with what Michael Vick did), but unfortunately it condemns so much else that, under present circumstances, it entails that not a single one of us avoids acting wrongfully. The reason is that we all benefit in myriad ways from the wrongful acts of others. Oil companies spoil pristine land and fleece the locals, but we purchase gas for our cars. Clothing manufacturers take advantage of loose labor laws in third world countries to exploit their workers (think maquiladoras or chinese sweatshops), but we purchase their cheap clothing. And the list goes on and on. Using this principle, there just seems to be no way to avoid the conclusion that we are all, vegans and non-vegans alike, in the same immoral boat (unless, of course, we grow our own food, make our own clothes from materials we produce ourselves, or the equivalent).

There is so much on which Prof. Colb and I agree that it seems a pity to make much of these points. I think that any right-thinking person must accept that the needless killing of animals such as turkeys and pigs (such as, for food) is wrong. So we can all agree that the practice should be stopped. The way to do this is to agitate for laws that ban the killing of animals for food. We also agree that there are excellent forward-looking reasons to ban the raising of animals for food, many of which Prof. Colb mentions in her post (saving the planet, better health outcomes, and so on). Morally and politically, it seems to me better that vegans and non-vegans concerned about the welfare of animals make common cause in this way.

Bob Hockett said...

Is partly constituting the demand side of a market for meat, which market then elicits the supplying of meat, not sufficiently causative of the requisite killing for meat as to warrant condemnation?

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Bob,

I think the answer is no. There are very very weak accounts of causation (on which practically anything causes anything) that entail that purchasing one turkey causes the killing of another. I am thinking of probability-raising accounts, difference-making accounts, and counterfactual accounts. But these accounts all have problems, well known to metaphysicians and philosophers of science, precisely because they are so weak. On stronger (and, in my view, better) accounts (such as causal process accounts, mark propagation accounts, conserved quantity accounts), purchasing the turkey does not cause the killing of another turkey.

Even leaving the heavy duty metaphysics of causation aside, ask yourself whether you could possibly be causally (and then morally responsible) for the actions of another person merely by sending him a signal (not by actually requesting) through conventional market mechanisms that you would help him secure a profit as a result of his commission of a wrongful act. The answer, more generally, is no. Suppose your reading of the market tells you that I will buy more of your company's products if your main competitor, Pedro, stops doing business. You then use immoral pricing practices to put Pedro out of business. Are my economic actions (e.g., purchasing products manufactured by Pedro's company) "sufficiently causative" of your immoral pricing practices to "warrant condemnation"? I think not.

Those who kill animals are free agents who are morally responsible for their actions. As a consumer, Turkey Grandma is not morally responsible for *their* actions. If she were to collude with them, conspire with them, to kill the animals, then she would be morally responsible for doing something wrong (colluding or conspiring to commit a wrongful act). But Turkey Grandma does not collude or conspire with wrongdoers when she purchases turkey carcasses from the grocery store.

Let's put it this way. Even if you accept a weak account of causation, it is one thing for a causal chain to run through inanimate objects (light the match that causes the spark that causes the fire that causes the destruction of the house); but it is quite another when the causal chain runs through the decisions of other human beings (I purchase something that makes it rational for you to do something that makes it rational for your friend to do yet another thing). When I light the match, I am responsible for the destruction of the house. But when I purchase what I do, I am not responsible for what your friend does.

Bob Hockett said...

Many thanks, Sam,

I think it might be that we hold divergent views about some of the circumstances under which moral responsibility can attach, even if we hold convergent views about some of the other circumstances under which such responsibility can attach, and perhaps about the metaphysics of causation as well. I quite agree, for example, that what lawyers sometimes call the 'intervening cause' of another agent's action can sometimes attenuate or even extinguish my own prima facie responsibility for an event that my own action also has contributed to causing. That seems particularly plausible in cases in which I cannot reasonably be expected to anticipate the other agent's intervening action. But for my responsibility to be extinguished in unforeseeability cases, or partly diluted in merely semi-advertent shared causation cases, it seems to me, is not for it to be eliminated entirely. That seems particularly so when I can readily foresee the effect that my own action will bear upon other's (e.g., cattle ranchers' and butchers')actions, and indeed regularly take my own (consumption) decisions with a view in part to inducing further such(repeated supplying) actions from others. Your observations here seem to me reminiscent of claims made by some cigarette manufacturers in the 1990s that it was the smokers themselves who were responsible for their lung cancers. It seemed to me then that the manufacturers were mistaken in thinking responsibility an either [them] / or [us] affair. Surely smokers are partly responsible for their own harms, and surely those who supply them with (and indeed advertise) the dangerous and addictive product while knowing of the dangers are partly responsible as well. Seems to me there's plenty of blame to go around in such cases, and that the turkey-meat-purchasing grandmother bears her portion of it in Sherry's Gedenkenexperiment.

All best,

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