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.