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Monday, August 17, 2009

Beware of the Dolphins, My Friend

After this post, Brian Leiter might want to avoid the beaches.  Our mammalian counterparts may seek to test out his theory: "Indeed, as far as I can see, killing animals does not harm them at all, as long as it is done painlessly."

Posted by Matt Bodie on August 17, 2009 at 11:13 AM | Permalink


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I think Prof Leiter can continue to go to the beach:
"This is because an animal's well-being is constituted by pleasant and unpleasant experiences at particular moments (synchronic well-being), and they lack a conception of their lives going well across time (diachronic well-being), such that losing their life could be a harm to them. (This is contestable about some animals, e.g., elephants, in which case, even within the hedonic framework, they might have a claim on not being used in any way that requires their death.)"
To the extent dolphins are able to read Leiters post, they should fall into the elephant category ... And dolphins eat fish, too ...
(BTW, Leiter expressly excludes human animals.)

Posted by: Positroll | Aug 17, 2009 11:33:32 AM

I didn't find a place to comment over there, but I must admit to being confused. Taking the life of a synchronic being is less harmful, under Leiter's account, than taking that of a diachronic being only if the killing comes with advance warning and is not instant. Otherwise, I fail to see how the diachronic being that is killed has suffered any injury, again under Leiter's account, distinct from that befalling a synchronic one.

Perhaps Leiter could avert to the suffering of those diachronic beings that have formed social connections with the killed being. If his empirical assumption is true, that the animals people kill in commercial enterprise are (mostly) synchronic, this kind of social, or third party suffering, does not occur, as it does in human animals.

But this move would still be flawed, because once you say (a) there is no harm to the killed individual, synchronic or diachronic, in being killed unsuspectingly and painlessly and (b) the only harm is to others, and only those others who have a sense of being through time, then you would have no apparent objection to killing a socially isolated individual. After all, these moral arguments all seem to come down to why it's acceptable to kill species X but not kill other people. I think they mostly fail to do so - and perhaps only by moving to a kind of Posnerian view that people are what they are - and in fact prosper from preferring "their own" over others. (One could also throw in an argument that allowing killing of people in fact would result in other undesirable social erosion, owing to our psychology, that killing other animals would not produce.)

This is setting to one side the objection that we just don't understand well enough what it's like to be a cow, for example, to have any idea what the hell we're talking about when we say that they and their fellows don't suffer from our use of them. Science may be getting us closer to understanding the thoughts of cows, but I don't think it provides the sorts of clean lines between beings that moral philosophy would like to impose.

The argument also leaves out environmental reasons for not eating meat. A strict rule against eating meat would not appear to be required to achieve better environmental results (just a reduction), but it may well be, and in my anecdotal experience with myself and others, that making large changes is often easier than making and enforcing smaller ones. Going vegetarian or vegan is sort of like jumping from one cultural track to another. Reducing the amount of meat one eats is not so much changing tracks as trying to enforce on one's self a vague standard of reduction that's easy to breach. Some people are better at doing this than others. Of course, this approach doesn't suggest a moral duty to eat no meat, just a practical approach to achieve a utilitarian end - less net meat eating.

Sorry for the stream of consciousness - I'm typing away from my son's orthodontist's office, without proofreading even for coherence. And at the same time, I'm wondering where to take him for a "you got your braces off" lunch.

Posted by: Christian Turner | Aug 17, 2009 12:18:41 PM

I was too late to the party over at Dorf's (prompted by the 'vegan lifesytle' discussion raised by Brian) so I'll chime in here: the "conception of well-being" argument is just that, an argument, and not a few of its premises are contestable, as the work (among others) of the late animal ethologist Donald Griffin attests. Indeed, it hinges on accounts of consciousness in human and non-human animals that are the subject of much debate (see Colin Allen's entry on 'animal consciousness' in the SEP). Much of the argument here comes courtesy of Peter Carruthers and several individuals have, I think, provided more than plausible responses but I'll cite one in particular: Evelyn Pluhar's The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals (1995) vigorously addresses at several points in her book Carruther's argument. Of course there are other arguments available as to why we might treat animals differently (and come to conclusions implicating vegetarianism and/or veganism) so it's important to keep in mind that "animal rights" (I'm not too fond of this expression but when it comes to translating certain ethical principles into legal norms it seems this is the best we can do) can be justified in different ways and thus "hedonic" (or 'states of consciousness') arguments are not the only, or necessarily the best, arguments available.

As Thomas White notes In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier (2007), we "do not treat members of our own species terribly well," so it's best to be realistic about the prospects of possible change in the short-term with regard to our treatment of non-human animals. Still, I think we might claim some degree of moral progress and there's hope that people can come to change their thoughts on such things. Consider, for example, the story of Michael Allen Fox (not to be confused with Michael W. Fox) as told by Angus Taylor in Animals and Ethics (2003 ed.; the third edition should be available soon*). Fox was the author of The Case for Animal Experimentation (1986) but came to wholly repudiate the argument of that book as well as radically revise his understanding of our relations with non-human animals:

"Fox attributes his former willingness to embrace a strongly anthropocentric position [views he now terms 'arrogant, complacent and arbitrary'] to a combination of factors. These include social conditioning and a philosophical training that emphasizes the application of abstract principles and argument for argument's sake, thus ignoring the important role feeling and emotion should play in morality."

This is intriguingly related to Dorf and Leiter's discussion at the former's blog as to how we often come to adopt (and alter or abandon) certain moral viewpoints and worldviews, the suggestion being that for most folks philosophical arguments as such will make little difference (nontheless, I think they can have trickle-down or spillover effects of a sort). Still, as I teach in a philosophy department and believe in the value of philosophy (professional and otherwise) I think it important to address the philosophical questions and engage in philosophical discussion and debate on such things.

For those seeking to broaden their knowledge of the relevant literature they could do worse than consult my bibliography on "animal ethics, rights and law" available in the Directed Reading series at Ratio Juris: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/06/animal-ethics-rights-law-bibliography.html

*Angus sent me a note saying the third edition is available but I've yet to see it at Amazon (see http://www.broadviewpress.com/product.php?productid=951&cat=12&page=1).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 17, 2009 1:00:18 PM

Just a quick note: nothing in the idea of diachronic well-being turns on any controversial view about consciousness (and certainly not Carruthers's!). Diachronic well-being is a conception of our lives going well across time. Almost all non-human animals lack that (with a few arguable cases at the margins). If what is bad about (painless) death is that it adversely affects our diachronic well-being, than creatres who lack such well-being are not harmed by dying. Those interested should consult the essay by David Velleman I referenced, which is reprinted in his collection "The Possibility of Practical Reason."

Posted by: Brian | Aug 17, 2009 5:04:44 PM

As Brian mentioned (as I recall) both Carruthers and Velleman at different points I thought perhaps he saw the arguments of one directly or indirectly supporting the arguments of the other (or perhaps they're simply independently supportive of his views). Now while it's true that Velleman's argument need not, and did not, depend on Carruther's denial of conscious experience to non-human animals (for the latter, they have 'mental states' but not conscious experience as such), they both end up with similar conclusions: a denial of continuity of consciousness and the corresponding inablity to conceptualize discrete or episodic moments of consciousness (or mental states) over time among non-human animals (hence, for instance, it would be difficult if not impossible to think of animals as possessing memory on the order of anything like the memory we are said to possess), hence for Velleman, there is only "particular-moment" value. Velleman ends up stating that his account justifies our believing that a cow is not harmed by its death and of course Carruthers, by a different route, arrives at the same conclusion. I happen to think that planning and tool use, among other things, show that (at least some non-human) animals have continuity of consciousness such that they can indeed conceptualize a sense of their welfare or well-being over time and hence that their lives are not confined, as they are with both Carruthers and Vellemans (for different reasons), to the merely momentary or episodic. There's much of worth in Velleman's argument apart from the consequences he draws from it for non-human animals but I think, in the end, he leaves us, again like Carruthers, with an agument that brings up the myriad problems associated with the argument from marginal cases.

Bob Hockett has some thoughtful things to say on some of these issues in his post over at Dorf on Law (discussing the aforementioned essay by Velleman and another article as well):

"I am often quite struck by how blithe we sometimes can be in matter-of-factly attributing or denying this or that mental capacity to this or that nonhuman animal. I know that the attribution of this or that kind of mental representation or concept-possession to this or that creature is partly (though I think not wholly) a means of interpreting various movements in which we find the creature – including the human creature – engaged. And I know that there is therefore presumably less reason to attribute some forms of concept-possession, including self-concept-possession, to some creatures than to others. (I have of course assumed that the onus of proof is on the attributor in acknowledging this.) But this is only one of what I’ve a strong suspicion should be many considerations that would properly enter into more fully considered concept- and other capacity-attributions to human and nonhuman creatures alike. And it would be good to see much more reference to such considerations by claimants on all sides of these discussions, at least when they are relying on these attributions or denials. Sherry Colb, incidentally, has accumulated a wealth of information on these matters."

So Hockett takes matters in a different direction (sounding here a bit like Richard Kraut in What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being, 2007):

"Now for my own part, I am inclined to say that value inheres in lives qua lives, narrativally self-represented or otherwise, and that the tendency of most living things to struggle to hold onto their lives is simply one indicator of this. I recognize that there is perhaps something vaguely Platonist (not to say Aristotelian, more on which in a moment) about thinking this way. But I’m not convinced that I’m ultimately any more Plationistic than is, in effect, Velleman. For, after all, even if a person’s fully articulated, internally and autonomously projected lifeplan were cut short by his death in his sleep, and he was not in any sense any longer capable of being aware of the fact, there would be no loss of value, to the now unknowing former-liver, occasioned by the failure of his lifeplan to be realized, it seems to me, unless the conception of value at work in a claim to the contrary was independent of ongoing actual valuation by the life-planner. (I’m of course bracketing third-party valuing both here and in the case of nonhuman creatures.)

So I am going to recommend that we work with a conception of value to which I believe even Velleman himself is at bottom committed. This conception has it that a life is valuable even independently of the capacity of its liver to value it as a life of some more or less specified temporal duration. It is a conception with which I suspect most of us work at least intuitively. And for reasons just indicated I do not believe anything Velleman says undercuts this conception; indeed quite the contrary. I hasten to add, before I proceed to my last comment, that none of this is to say that the values of particular nonhuman creatures’ lives cannot be over-ridden by other values, any more than the value of a self-consciously lived life to its (representative, unimpaired) human liver cannot be over-ridden. It is only to deny the claim that they are altogether devoid of value qua lives as distinguished from moments of lives. It is to claim that all living things are the beneficiaries of defeasible obligations, on the part of those of us who examine our lives with a view to acting upon judgments of value, not to destroy them cavalierly – and that the real question is therefore not whether there are such defeasible obligations, but the conditions under which they are legitimately defeated."

I happen to think we can, with Tom Regan, come up with a notion of animal preferences and welfare--or with Bob Hockett a notion of value--such that in most cases killing them does amount to harming them.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 17, 2009 7:20:30 PM

I think Brian's right about the synchronic/diachronic point, but something else bothers me about the post. What many vegans object to is not the killing of animals, but their inhumane treatment. So in a world where animals were raised and killed humanely, this concern would evaporate. That's not, however, the world we live in. The overwhelming majority of meat is the product of brutal torture that would shock most of us if we were exposed to it. The pro-vegan argument I've found very hard to resist goes like this: animals are sentient beings who should not suffer unnecessarily; using animal products (including meat) that are produced by these industries tends to perpetuate the existence of those industries; so eating meat is an immoral act (and, contrariwise, refraining from doing so is moral insofar as it marginally harms these industries). This is more a practical/policy argument than a formal philosophical one, but I've always found it convincing (not that I follow it--despite best efforts, I go ahead and eat meat, while conceding this makes me a bad moral actor). At the very least, I'm not sure an argument about the morality of veganism that relies on a false factual premise about the reality of animal welfare can succeed.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 17, 2009 9:36:27 PM

I quite explicitly considered the vegan position to be that *even if* animals were killed painlessly it would not be moral to consume animal products. That is why I was intersted in the question: what is the harm to animals from death?

I do wish people would read what was written.

Posted by: Brian | Aug 17, 2009 10:16:17 PM


A "practical/policy" argument can of course be, and often is, based on moral (hence philosophical) presuppositions and assumptions or includes tacit appeals to commonly held moral beliefs or intuitions so while it may not be a formal philosophical argument, there's certainly nothing wrong with re-writing it as such, as we might (and should) do outside specific political, policy or rhetorical fora.

Re: "What many vegans object to is not the killing of animals, but their inhumane treatment."

Indeed, this has in fact been discussed extensively by Michael Dorf and Sherry Colb over at Dorf on Law, and in the first post there about Leiter's poll and comments I wrote:

One might be a vegan for dietary or health reasons, or be motivated by ethical or spiritual concerns, indeed, even politico-economic reasons might prompt one to become a vegan (and various combinations thereof).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 17, 2009 10:21:42 PM

But to be clear, since we're talking about veganism, it's not about the harm of death as such to animals that concerns vegans, so it is not about death simpliciter but about death that comes from their being killed for human consumption. Vegans don't argue, for example, that a (so to speak) "natural" death is bad for animals, it's the reasons for their dying that are at issue. To needlessly kill an animal (killing is a prima facie 'bad' on this account so there may be sufficient reasons to override that presumption) is to deprive it of the good for which it suited as an animal of that sort (and as with us, what is good for an animal may not be what the animal in fact wants). Cf. Richard Kraut: "at a high level of generality, there is something that the good of a human child and that of young members of other kinds of species have in common: it is good for them to grow, to develop, to be healthy, and to flourish." If that be true, needlessly killing them (e.g., for dietary let alone gustatory reasons) amounts to a fairly arbitrary denial of what is good for them.... Or, in Richard Taylor's words,

"Even if it became possible for us to devise methods of killing them, as well as ways of treating them while alive, that involved little or no pain, we would still violate a prima facie duty in consuming them. They would still be treated as mere means [i.e., not creatures with inherent worth or value] to our ends and so would be wronged."

So perhaps we might ask "what is the harm that comes to non-human animals from a death that is the result of killing them solely for our benefit?"

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 17, 2009 10:59:45 PM

Brian wrote,

"I quite explicitly considered the vegan position to be that *even if* animals were killed painlessly it would not be moral to consume animal products. That is why I was intersted in the question: what is the harm to animals from death?

I do wish people would read what was written."

Yes, I understand that. The point of my post was to question the practical utility of that assumption when having a discussion about the morality of a widespread social practice. My sense of the vegan position (based only on casual empiricism) is that it centers largely on the concerns raised by cruelty associated with factory farming. Certainly if we assume away the truly difficult moral issues raised by factory farming, we're left with a relatively easy (though, I agree, kind of interesting) question about the harm to animals from humane death alone.

To the extent that this is simply a disagreement about what kinds of inquiries are interesting, there's no need to belabor it. But I think the issue is relevant to the question of the moral status of veganism. Veganism is a practical decision based on facts about the world as it's currently constructed. One of those facts is that animal products are typically the product of extreme cruelty inflicted on sentient beings. I think a useful argument about the morality of veganism has to meet this reality, rather than making an assumption that sidesteps it.

For my part, I wish academics would start from a charitable baseline when answering others' arguments.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 18, 2009 2:41:57 PM

I do not share you sense of the grounds of the vegan position. It might be interesting to discuss this other argument, the standard one for vegetarianism, since it is also problematic but interesting.

Posted by: Brian | Aug 19, 2009 8:27:52 PM

Wait, why would Dave's point not also be an argument for veganism? If we're factoring in the world as it is, factory milking conditions aren't exactly a picnick.

- A Milk Drinker

Posted by: just passing through | Aug 21, 2009 11:02:37 AM

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