Deontology, Consequentialism, Abortion, and Animal Rights

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I  take up the question of why pro-life members of Congress and other advocates have been uninterested in pressing for increased access to contraception, given that wide access to contraception dramatically reduces the rate of abortion (by reducing the rate of unwanted pregnancy).  I suggest that their view might be explained as the product of a deontological perspective, rather than a consequentialist perspective, on the act of abortion.  In particular, I propose that a retributive approach to the wrongdoing of abortion aims to effect moral persuasion upon the parties responsible for abortion as well as to punish those who decide, notwithstanding the putative immorality of the procedure, to provide it or to undergo it nevertheless.  For similar reasons, perhaps, those who are morally outraged and focused on the evil of criminal conduct may be most interested in providing severe and long-term punishments for those who engage in it rather than providing benefits and educational access for those who are at high risk of embarking on a life of crime.

 I am a co-author (with blogger Michael C. Dorf) of a forthcoming book about abortion and animal rights, entitled Beating Hearts:  Abortion and Animal Rights.  As such, I am interested in exploring here whether there is a similar phenomenon at work among some number of animal rights activists.

The first step is to determine what the analogue of access to contraception would be in the animal rights movement. I can think of three possible candidates:  providing delicious vegan food so people see that they will want for nothing as vegans; explaining the health benefits of leaving animal protein off one's plate; and pointing out the environmental devastation attributable to the consumption and production of animal products such as dairy and flesh.

I should start by saying that although I consider myself mostly a deontologist (or deontist), I strongly favor efforts to provide delicious vegan food to people so that they realize that they are not missing anything if they decide to stop consuming the products of animal torture and slaughter (which all animal products, including organic dairy and eggs from one's backyard, truly are).  I also feel comfortable advocating for veganism on the basis of its documented health benefits (my general practitioner says he has never seen such good cholesterol numbers, and I'm not even a "health food" vegan).  And I am glad to point out the environmental impact of consuming an animal-based diet.

Notwithstanding what I have said above, I know that there are ethical vegans who are strong deontologists and who steer clear of advocating for veganism on the basis of non-animal-rights arguments. I have heard some say that veganism is not about delicious doughnuts and plant-based meat, seafoood, and cheese; it is about the injustice of exploiting our fellow sentient earthlings. Talking about health benefits and environmental effects, for them, seems like asking people do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  The consequences are a reduction in demand for animal products and therefore a reduction in the suffering and slaughter of sentient beings.  But the deontologist may be unhappy because the means--advocacy of how veganism is good for humans--does not match the ends--doing justice for nonhuman animals.

I myself find the amount of suffering and slaughter caused by the consumption of flesh, dairy, and eggs to be so astonishingly great (over a trillion animals slaughtered a year, counting sea-dwelling beings) that I am prepared to say anything truthful and non-offensive that might persuade people to start consuming a plant-based diet and utilizing non-animal-based clothing, etc.  I am generally quick to add that I am a vegan mainly for animal rights reasons, but I am certainly not indifferent to the other beneficial effects, and I do not expect other people to be indifferent to them either. Perhaps this makes me something of a consequentialist in regards to animal rights, since a true deontologist would want to encourage people to become vegan for the "right" reasons, much in the way that I described the pro-life deontologist wanting people to choose to take their pregnancies to term because life is sacred rather than reducing the abortion rate by having the same amount of sex with the help of contraceptives.

One area where I do take a more deontological approach on animal rights than some do is in my refusal to engage in sexist or racist rhetoric in an effort to persuade people to stop using animal products. There are campaigns, for instance, that depict women enjoying rough sex with their virile vegan partners (because animal foods tend to clog the arteries, including the arteries implicated in impotence or erectile dysfunction). There are numerous other sexist campaigns for leaving animals off one's plate (and arguably one racist campaign to do the same), and I neither support nor post such campaigns on social media.  I believe that people should not be turning to veganism because they hate women or because they stereotype people of color.  Indeed, from my perspective, the use of such campaigns is incompatible with veganism because ethical veganism is about refusing to treat any sentient being as a resource, women and people of color included.  I have heard others say, however, that if sexism works, why not use it?

If a Klansman were to ask me about wearing a white sheet that says "Go Vegan," I would implore him not to do so. While I am comfortable with touting the positive instrumental benefits of veganism, I am strongly opposed to utilizing other-hating or other-shaming methods for motivating people to stop exploiting animals, even if such methods were to "work."  Such tactics are wrong, as a matter of principle, and I will not engage in them.  I explain in a column here why this approach leads me to reject the anti-Kaporos campaigns that occur around the Jewish High Holy Days. And for similar reasons, I suppose, the pro-life advocate who believes that contraception is sinful will not try to make contraception more available, even if it has the net effect of reducing the rate of abortion. Though I disagree with that approach to contraception (in large part because I view contraception as morally permissible), I can understand it due to my own views about animal rights.