The first Animal Blawg poll that I posted some time ago caught Professor Brian Leiter’s eye several days ago. According to Professor Leiter, the results of the poll suggest that many, if not most, vegans (or at least the readers of AnimalBlawg) ascribe to either “morally abhorrent” or “morally baseless views”. For Leiter, holding that killing animals is always wrong is morally abhorrent because, among other things, it would lead to claiming that killing an animal in order to save a human being from imminent harm is morally wrong. This, Leiter believes, is clearly incorrect.
On the other hand, Leiter believes that those who think that killing an animal is morally wrong absent exigent circumstances do not display morally “abhorrent” views. However, he believes that adopting such a position is morally indefensible, given that if animal interests stem from sentience, there is nothing wrong with painlessly killing an animal. Therefore, Leiter claims that the only morally sound reason for being a vegan is that, although killing animals is not necessarily wrong, the processes that lead to the killing of animals for human consumption typically cause an unjustifiable infliction of pain on the creatures. I have three comments about Leiter’s post.
First, I commend Professor Leiter for once again paying attention to some of the moral and legal issues that arise as a result of our relationship with non-human animals. Although I disagree with some of his views, it’s good to see that a brilliant mind like Leiter’s is blogging about these issues.
Second, I once again take issue with Leiter’s choice of words. Calling the views of vegans who believe that killing animals is always wrong “abhorrent” strikes me as somewhat insensitive. Perhaps such views are misguided (I actually agree with Leiter on this point – just like killing humans is not always wrong – e.g. self-defense -, killing animals is not always wrong either), but there’s no reason to call them abhorrent. It is better to reserve such terms for truly abhorrent moral views such as those that are inspired by racism, bigotry or prejudice. This questionable choice of words reminds me of Professor Leiter’s misguided decision to include “veganism is disgusting” as an alternative in a poll he crafted to gauge law professors’ attitudes towards veganism. Again, perhaps the philosophy undergirding veganism is unwise or misguided (I don’t think so, but some might claim that it is), but that does not make it disgusting or abhorrent.
Finally, Professor Leiter glosses over several arguments when defending his views that painlessly killing animals is not morally wrong and that the killing of an animal in order to save a human being is morally right. First, his argument would lead to the conclusion that it is not morally wrong to kill sentient human beings who are not capable of self-awareness and planning for the future. I’m not sure that this is something that Leiter is willing to accept. If he is not, then he has to explain what makes this case different from the case of animals, beside the fact that one being is a human and the other is not. If he is willing to accept this conclusion, then his argument is objectionable, given that most would balk at accepting a theory that leads to the counterintuitive proposition that killing some sentient human beings is not morally offensive. Lastly, it is also unclear whether, as Leiter argues, it is obviously right to kill an animal in order to save a human being. If we take sentience seriously, it might very well be the case that it is morally wrong to kill a sentient animal in order to save a non-sentient human being who is not conscious and never will be.