Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights -- Bioethics Seminar at Princeton Today

by Michael Dorf

This afternoon at 4:30 pm, Prof. Colb and I will participate in a two-hour bioethics seminar on our book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. We are very grateful for the participation of the other panelists: Fordham theology professor Charles Camosy; Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior; and Princeton philosophy professor Peter Singer, who will chair the festivities. Here I'll say a few words about what I expect to go down.

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with Singer, who is the leading utilitarian philosopher of our time. Singer's book Animal Liberation is often credited with catalyzing the modern animal rights movement, notwithstanding the fact that, as a utilitarian in the Benthamite tradition, Singer does not believe in rights. Our book repeatedly pays homage to Singer, even as we disagree with him both in general orientation--we take a mixed moral view that is closer to deontology than to utilitarianism--and in application to some particulars--especially with respect to so-called welfare measures that aim merely to improve the condition in which animals are exploited for food and fiber.

Camosy and Swallow Prior are both pro-life with respect to abortion, although Camosy's views are more nuanced. His recent book Beyond the Abortion Wars stakes out something of a middle ground, at least as viewed from the pro-life side. From our point of view, he opts for too much regulation of pregnant women, but we very much agree with the spirit of his book, which is in the same spirit as ours: It is an attempt to take seriously the moral position of those on the other side of the abortion debate and to give some ground.

Likewise, Swallow Prior is pro-life but has taken not inconsiderable heat from others in her movement for expressing compassion for women who have abortions.  No doubt the panel will surface some important areas of disagreement about abortion with both Camosy and Swallow Prior (as well as with Singer), but given the commitment of all the panelists to fair-minded acknowledgments of one another's good faith, I expect that we will profit a great deal from the exchange.

As compared to the majority of the population, all of the panelists are sympathetic to the interests of animals. As noted, Singer's views about animals come out of his brand of utilitarianism, whereas Colb and I describe our method as "constructivist," building on what we take to be shared moral intuitions in reflective equilibrium. (Singer also builds on moral intuitions, but somewhat different ones.)  Meanwhile, Camosy and Swallow Prior root their concern for animals in their respective Christian traditions (Catholic for Camosy, Evangelical Protestant for Swallow Prior). Both of them serve on the Humane Society's Faith Advisory Council.

One interesting question I hope we have a chance to explore is whether the different sources that root our shared conclusion that animals deserve moral consideration account for our respective differences in concrete goals. Colb and I are the most "radical" of the speakers on the panel, as vegans who think that the end goal should be the abolition of all or nearly all human exploitation of animals, whereas the others are more sympathetic to an ethic of humane use. My tentative hypothesis is that the respective sources of our convictions about animals do not explain our further views. I float that hypothesis because attending animal rights conferences over the years I have met people with each of the respective comprehensive moral views of the other panelists who are at least as "radical" as Colb and I are. In other words, there are secular utilitarians, religiously inspired Protestants, religiously inspired Catholics, and people inspired by non-Christian faiths (including Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam) who are every bit as abolitionist vegan as Colb and I are. And conversely, there are people of every philosophical orientation and religious faith who reject moral consideration for animals (although that's less common for the religions originating in India).

I also hope we have a chance to explore some of the questions we raise in Part II of our book, which discusses practical issues that confront both the animal rights and pro-life movements. We have chapters that address the utility of compromise measures, the role of graphic imagery in each movement, and the role of violence.

In light of the recent election, I'm especially interested in raising the following question for Professors Camosy and Swallow Prior: Suppose a strongly pro-life voter who was nonetheless appropriately repelled by much of the campaign and personal behavior of Donald Trump. How should such a person have voted, knowing that Trump would appoint Supreme Court justices who are likely to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade? The point of the question is not to put either of these panelists on the spot, but to demonstrate the ubiquity of the problems of potential insincerity and cooperation with evil when one seeks justice through the political process.

Meanwhile, speaking of the election, my latest Verdict column draws on my experience as an advocate for animals in an effort to help my fellow liberal Democrats cheer up and get to work. I explain that the consternation they (and I) feel about the fact that so many of our fellow citizens made what looks to us like a very misguided, even evil, choice in the election is similar to what I might feel every day when I see friends and colleagues whom I admire greatly make food choices that I regard as participation in evil. But even though I do regard those choices that way, I don't feel consternation. Curious why not? Check out the column. And if you're in the Princeton area this afternoon, please check out the panel.