Brian Leiter's Curiosity Killed the Cow

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Mike Dorf