16 June 2005

Another Reason Not to Be a Consequentialist

Russ Shafer-Landau is a philosopher at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught at The University of Kansas for many years. Russ and I went to graduate school together at The University of Arizona in the 1980s. In January 1994, Russ published an essay entitled “Vegetarianism, Causation and Ethical Theory” in Public Affairs Quarterly. I read it in April of that year and then again today, because I’ve been grappling with the question he takes up. The question is whether buying (and consuming) meat causes harm to animals. Russ thinks it doesn’t, and since two of the three main normative ethical theories—consequentialism and deontology—require the causation of harm in order for an action to be wrong, neither of them grounds an obligation to abstain from meat.

Russ concedes that the third main normative ethical theory—virtue ethics—has the resources to ground such an obligation, but he doesn’t make the case here. As for deontology, I’m not convinced by Russ’s claim that it lacks the theoretical resources to condemn meat-eating. He himself provides a plausible deontological principle (to wit: “one must refuse (even symbolic) support of essentially cruel practices, if a comparably costly alternative that is not tied to essentially cruel practices is readily available”), but then, puzzlingly, he makes a wholesale attack on deontological principles. This (pardon the metaphor) is using a cannon to kill an ant. And he missed!—for reasons I give in my essay “Deontological Egoism.”

But Russ may be right that consequentialism lacks the resources to condemn meat-eating. (Consequentialism is the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is a function solely of its consequences. That an act is of a certain type, such as killing an innocent person, lying, or torturing, is morally irrelevant. Consequentialism requires that the good be maximized, and it insists that in calculating the amount of good, everyone’s interests—including those of the agent—be considered equally. Consequentialists hold that we are as responsible for what we allow as for what we bring about. Hence, each of us, at all times, is to make the world the best place it can be, remaining strictly impartial as we do so.) Here is the suspect inference:
1. Factory farming is wrong.
2. It is wrong to purchase and eat (factory-farmed) meat.
Russ accepts the premise for the sake of argument. What he denies is that the conclusion follows from it. Here is Russ’s criticism of this argument (he calls his criticism “the inefficacy argument”):
[O]ne cannot, in one’s purchase and eating of meat, have any direct influence on the amount of cruelty and harm inflicted on the animals in a factory farm. Whether one purchases a steak, or several steaks, for personal or family consumption will have no influence whatever on the amount of cruelty perpetrated on today’s farms. One’s meat-purchasing habits essentially make no difference at all to the total amount of suffering experienced by the billions of animals currently maltreated. The ordinary consumer of meat is so remote in the causal nexus of animal suffering, that one cannot properly attribute to any such consumer any causal, hence moral, responsibility for the admittedly wretched fates suffered by farm animals. One is morally free to do as one likes so long as one does no harm. Meat purchases do no harm. Therefore one is morally free to make them. (page 85)
If Russ is right, then one cannot consistently (1) be a consequentialist and (2) believe that meat-eating is wrong. Consequentialism, he says, implies nothing about the wrongness of eating meat.

I’m not as sure as Russ appears to be that consequentialism lacks the theoretical resources to condemn meat-eating. But suppose he’s right. It doesn’t follow that one must accept the moral permissibility of meat-eating. What follows is a disjunction: Either one accepts the moral permissibility of meat-eating or one rejects consequentialism. What Russ has done, perhaps unwittingly, is give a knock-down, drag-out argument against consequentialism. Any theory that has an unacceptable implication is unacceptable. Meat-eating is wrong; therefore, since consequentialism implies that it’s not wrong, consequentialism is to be rejected.

Let me put it differently. There are two ways to preserve consistency if Russ is right. The first is to bite the bullet and believe that meat-eating is morally permissible. (A bullet-biter is someone who sticks with a theory even though—even when—it gives counterintuitive results.) The second is to continue believing that meat-eating is morally impermissible (you do believe that, don’t you?) and to reject consequentialism for entailing the denial of this belief. Nor is this the only case in which consequentialism gives the wrong result. It gives the wrong result in so many cases of so many different types that you wonder why anyone, much less a philosopher, endorses it. Russ has simply added another nail to the consequentialist coffin.

No comments: