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.

12 June 2005

From the Mailbag

Hello Dr. Burgess-Jackson,

Good analysis of [Roger] Scruton's article. I know you've mentioned [Matthew] Scully a few times recently, but have you read Dominion? Scully does quite a job on Scruton. I count Dominion among the best non-fiction books I've ever read. As one reviewer put it, "A master of language, he leaves a memorable phrase on virtually every page." (Nichols Fox, Washington Post Book World)

Regarding Scruton: I think that many people (probably most of them) form their beliefs on a gut level and then proceed to look around for a logical justification for those beliefs (even if the resulting arguments don't really hold water). Scruton, in his heart of hearts, seems not to respect animals—so he cobbles together a rationalization that would justify his prejudice.

What I found most appalling about Scruton's article is his utter misinterpretation of Richard Dawkins's elegant theories. I suspect that Scruton never even read The Selfish Gene and simply judged it by its title. I'll have more to say about Dawkins in my next e-mail message.

On another note: What is your secret to time management? You seem to engage in an awful lot of activities: teaching, publishing academic papers, writing your blogs, walking your dogs, exercising, participating in bike rallies, watching movies and sports events, etc. How do you do it?


Alex Chernavsky
Rochester, NY

Note from KBJ: No children.

07 June 2005

Scully on the Radio

Longtime reader Khursh Mian Acevedo sent a link to a radio interview with animal-rights advocate Matthew Scully, who happens (like me) to be a conservative. See here. Thinking that animals matter, morally, is not a liberal cause. How it came to be seen as a liberal cause puzzles me. Was the abolition of slavery a liberal cause? Must one be a liberal to think that making sentient beings suffer for trivial reasons is wrong? And by the way, not all liberals have been proponents of animal rights. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one of history's great liberals, was decidedly not a proponent of animal rights. Indeed, he thought animals had the moral status of inanimate objects.

03 June 2005

Animal Rights

Many people have a visceral response to the idea of animal rights. They say it’s impossible, nonsensical, absurd. But why? To say that an animal has a particular right, such as a right not to be harmed, isn’t to say that it has any other particular right, such as a right to vote, much less that it has all rights. We know that children, for example, have certain rights but not others. Why can’t the same be true of animals?

Another important distinction, often ignored, is that between positive and negative rights. A positive right is a right to do or have something. If there is a right to health care, as liberals claim, it is a positive right. Voting is a positive right. But many rights are negative. I have a right not to be killed, battered, robbed, stolen from, or defamed. Why can’t animals have negative rights? Perhaps animals have only one right: a negative right not to be made to suffer.

Yet another confusion is between absolute and defeasible rights. An absolute right may not be infringed; a defeasible right may be infringed under certain circumstances. Most of our rights are defeasible. There is a right to speak, but not to yell fire in a crowded theater. There is a right to exercise your religion, but not if it requires human sacrifice. Rights are defeasible because there is more than one valuable thing. Even the right to life is defeasible, which is why execution of murderers is not a violation of it.

There are many other important distinctions to be made in the realm of rights. Let me mention just one more: between legal rights and moral rights. Legal rights are conferred by government and would not exist without government. Moral rights exist independently of government. Indeed, they set limits on what government may do. Read Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to see an example of moral (often called “natural”) rights. There are two sorts of argument one can have about legal rights. The first is whether a particular legal right exists. Lawyers are expert in answering this question. The second is whether a particular legal right should exist. Everyone is competent to answer this question, since it’s a moral question. (There are no moral experts.) Even if animals had no legal rights, it could be true that they should.

When I say that I’m a proponent of animal rights, all I mean is that I believe that animals have moral status. They’re not nothing, morally speaking. There are moral limits to what we can do to them. We can wrong them. They have (valid) claims on us. They’re entitled to be treated a certain way. There’s nothing mysterious about any of these claims. Indeed, we say such things all the time about humans.

By the way, utilitarians don’t believe in rights (even for humans), but this doesn’t prevent them from using the language of rights. Here is Peter Singer:

In misguided attempts to refute the arguments of this book, some philosophers have gone to much trouble developing arguments to show that animals do not have rights. They have claimed that to have rights a being must be autonomous, or must be a member of a community, or must have the ability to respect the rights of others, or must possess a sense of justice. These claims are irrelevant to the case for Animal Liberation. The language of rights is a convenient political shorthand. It is even more valuable in the era of thirty-second TV news clips than it was in [Jeremy] Bentham’s day; but in the argument for a radical change in our attitude to animals, it is in no way necessary. (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2d ed. [New York: The New York Review of Books, 1990], 8 [endnote omitted])
The question is not whether animals can have rights, or even whether they do in fact have rights, but which rights they have. I submit to you that they have one basic right: the right to have their suffering taken into consideration in our deliberations. If that right were respected, it would change the world.

01 June 2005

Frum on Scully on Animals

Here is David Frum's review of Matthew Scully's book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. I suspect most people think of animal rights as a liberal cause. It has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism.