The Value of Arguing for "Obvious" Propositions

by Michael Dorf

This week I have been attending and speaking at the somewhat misleadingly named Vegetarian Summerfest, a five-day annual vegan conference that brings together speakers on nutrition, ethics, the environment, and other aspects of the vegan movement. On Wednesday, I gave a talk titled Animal Rights as a Social Justice Movement, in which I focused on the lessons the animal rights movement can learn from the civil rights, women's rights, and LGBT rights movements. Yesterday, I gave a talk titled Is Death Harmful to Animals (Including Humans)?, in which I addressed an argument--traceable to the philosopher Epicurus--that death is not a harm. Although the argument originated in a discussion of how humans should live, it now features in debates over whether moral consideration for animals entails only that animals be treated humanely while being raised for food or whether moral consideration for animals entails refraining from most exploitation of animals altogether. Tomorrow, Prof. Colb and I are conducting a joint session focusing on tactical issues for the animal rights and other justice movements. All of these talks draw on our recent book, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. (Prof. Colb is also giving two solo talks of her own, one of which draws on her book Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans.)

Accordingly, this seems like an appropriate time for me to write a few words in response to a recent review of Beating Hearts in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. The review was written by Nathan Nobis, an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College. In other writing, Prof. Nobis supports the cause of what he and a co-author call "dietary veganism."  (I agree with their argument in the essay, although I do not know why they limit the argument to diet, thus excluding the use of animals for clothing and entertainment, which is equally unnecessary. Some scientific experimentation on animals raises harder questions than food, fiber, and entertainment uses of animals, so perhaps Nobis and his co-author were simply focusing on the most common clearly unjustified use.)

I'm not sure what views Nobis holds with respect to abortion. In his review, he says that we pay inadequate attention to the argument of some pro-lifers that even if adult humans lack duties to pre-sentient fetuses, we could have duties concerning such pre-sentient fetuses. This is one of several places in which Nobis chides us for not offering a comprehensive discussion of abortion or animal rights, even though we disclaimed any such aim. That point aside, Nobis does not say whether he thinks the argument for duties concerning fetuses is persuasive. On his website, Nobis links a very short essay in which he rejects most of the standard anti-abortion arguments but concludes only that "the moral status of abortion is complex." We also think abortion's moral status is complex. So maybe Nobis disagrees with us on the morality of various abortions, but maybe he doesn't.

In any event, it looks to me like Prof. Nobis holds views that are very close to our views about animals and are at least roughly in the same ballpark as our views about abortion. One might therefore have expected him to have written a positive review of the book, unless he thought it poorly written, offensive, or unoriginal. Nobis doesn't raise any of those sorts of objections, and yet, while he likes some aspects of our book, he is overall critical. Although I will detail some of the ways in which I disagree with various particulars of what Nobis writes, I'm not going to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal. The role of a reviewer is to provide his or her honest reaction, and I appreciate that Nobis took the time to engage seriously with our book. I want to offer a response that uses his review as an opportunity to raise a broader question: Whether it is worth the time of serious thinkers to take bad arguments seriously?

Boiled down to its essentials, Nobis has one fundamental problem with our book. He thinks our basic point is obvious. The argument for rights for sentient animals rests on the proposition that it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to beings capable of experiencing harm, but because most abortions occur before fetal sentience, animal rights can be justified without entailing the pro-life view that all or most abortions are wrong. Nobis thinks that the two issues, properly understood, have nothing to do with one another, or at least nothing more to do with one another than any two randomly chosen issues in moral philosophy. He says something similar about Part 2 of our book, where we discuss  similarities between the tactical and strategic choices faced by the pro-life and animal-rights movements. Nobis says that these are simply common problems facing all reform movements.

Readers can judge for themselves whether Nobis is right about the movements piece of our book. We acknowledge in beginning Part 2 that there are common strategic challenges facing all reform movements, but we go on to discuss particular commonalities with these two movements--especially the role of violence and the use of graphic images. But let's put that aside. What about the more basic point Nobis makes?

We agree with Nobis (or rather, Nobis agrees with us) that favoring animal rights does not entail opposition to the abortion of pre-sentient fetuses, because sentience grounds moral consideration for animals. But Nobis makes two further claims that simply don't follow.

First, it doesn't follow that abortion and animal rights have no more in common than any two random moral issues. As we say early in the book, the question whether humanity is a sufficient condition for moral consideration (pro-lifers say yes) implicates many of the same considerations as the question whether humanity is a necessary condition for moral consideration (animal rights proponents say no). The question "what difference, if any, does membership in the human species make?" is common to both abortion and animal rights but not to most other questions in moral philosophy.

Second, Nobis is wrong to think that it is obvious that one can support animal rights based on considerations of sentience but think abortion of pre-sentient fetuses is morally permissible--at least where "obvious" has the meaning it has in ordinary discourse. Judging by the reactions that we have received to our book from otherwise very smart people (including professionally trained philosophers) and by what other otherwise smart people (including professionally trained philosophers) have said to us and other vegans over the years, there is a great deal of confusion on these matters. A great many people think that human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are, in virtue of their being human, more entitled to moral respect than are animals. Moreover, they say, if we favor animal rights, we must, a fortiori, oppose abortion. We think it should be obvious that this last claim is false, but that doesn't mean that it is obvious.

For Nobis, the fact that some otherwise smart thoughtful people believe something is not a good enough reason to take the time to write a book showing that the belief is false, at least where the belief should be seen as obviously wrong. Is he right? Did we waste our time in writing Beating Hearts? I think not, for three basic reasons.

First, and most importantly, all social justice movements aim to prove something that should be obvious. It should have been obvious that slavery was wrong, that Jim Crow was wrong, that oppression of women is wrong, and that the oppression of LGBT people is wrong. Some people may engage in moral philosophy only because they find it interesting as an intellectual exercise, but we think that it is also worth doing as a means of doing good in the world. We are academics, not polemicists, and that affects the style and content of our work, but we nonetheless think that there is a moral argument for making moral arguments even--indeed, especially--when the argument properly understood should be obvious.

Second, obviousness is in the eye of the beholder. Very thoughtful people have said to me that they think sentience is not a sufficient condition for moral respect, usually pointing to something like full moral agency as an alternative. Some of these people also think that pre-sentient fetuses are entitled to moral consideration in virtue of their potential for full moral agency. I think the argument doesn't work, and I even think that it obviously doesn't work, but getting there can be complicated.

Here is an old joke: A math professor writes a proof on the blackboard; a student says he doesn't understand how the professor got from step 3 to step 4; the professor says it's obvious; the student says he still doesn't see it; the professor then writes out the intermediate steps she had omitted between steps 3 and 4, eventually covering the entire blackboard with the previously omitted steps; the professor then says to the student "see, it's obvious." Just about everything that's true is obvious once you see it. But until you see it, it isn't obvious.

Third, the people who think that animal rights entail a pro-life position on abortion typically hold other views that are not so easy to dismiss. They are worth engaging. Even their errors in reasoning may point to interesting connections that we don't otherwise see.

In my professional life, I have written hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages responding to claims made by self-styled originalists. I do so because otherwise serious people take originalism seriously, even though I regard it as a badly misguided approach to constitutional interpretation. The exchange between originalists and skeptics of originalism has led to a considerable evolution in originalism and to the refinement of alternatives. That, it seems to me, is how intellectual progress is made among people who disagree with one another.

Likewise as a vegan, I spend a good deal of time answering good-faith questions from non-vegans that, in my view, have obvious answers. What about plants? Aren't the animals dead already? Don't animals eat other animals? (Those are chapter titles of Mind If Order the Cheeseburger?) I typically learn from these exchanges, because people asking "easy" questions often have interesting or surprising related observations. In any event, I don't see how advocates of a distinctly minority position (like animal rights) can hope to persuade anybody of anything unless we engage with positions we think are obviously wrong.

I think Prof. Colb and I wrote an interesting book, but that's a subjective and biased judgment. Whether people find our treatment of animal issues and abortion together fruitful is for them to decide. Whatever the book's flaws, though, I don't think it is a telling criticism to say that the book makes points that should be obvious.