An Asssessment of Brian Leiter’s Views About Animal Blawg’s Veganism Poll

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.

Luis Chiesa

10 Responses

  1. […] An Asssessment of Brian Leiter’s Views About Animal Blawg’s Veganism Poll « Animal Blawg animalblawg.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/an-asssessment-of-brian-leiters-views-about-animal-blawgs-veganism-poll – view page – cached An Asssessment of Brian Leiter’s Views About Animal Blawg’s Veganism Poll — From the page […]

  2. Professor Chiesa: Thanks for your comments. I have found these discussions instructive.

    1. I stand by my choice of words. Someone who holds the view that it would be wrong to kill an animal to save human beings–which I take to be the import of the view in question–holds what strike me as a morally abhorrent view. They should give it up and they should not be treated as though they have a morally credible position.

    2. I have been, I thought explicitly, bracketing questions about whether there are good moral arguments for vegetarianism. So, arguendo, I’ve been allowing the argument from the moral relevance of sentience in this debate, to see where it might lead–and I take it you don’t disagree that it does not lead us to a moral argument for veganism. Now I think sentience is morally relevant, but it is one among many morally relevant considerations. And the fact that treating it, as say Singer does, as of overriding moral importance leads to morally abhorrent conclusions about the treatment of human infants and the disabled is, I am inclined to think, a reductio of the starting point, namely, that sentience is of overriding moral importance. Given the strength of intuitions about, on the one hand, the moral permissibility of using animals to develop medical treatments that save human lives, and, on the other, the impermissibility of infanticide and killing of the disabled, I think it will turn out that specieism is not, contra Singer, like racism, but rather is indispensable to our moral thought.

  3. Brian: I still don’t understand why you think that someone who thinks it is wrong to kill an animal to save human beings is morally abhorrent and shouldn’t be treated as having a morally credible position. I suppose before I inquire further as to this opinion of yours I need to understand whether you think that someone who thinks it is wrong to kill a person to save human beings is also morally abhorrent. Are you disagreeing with the theory that you shouldn’t sacrifice one individual for the good of the whole, or is your position merely one that animals are not as important as human beings, or not as worthy of life or however you want to consider the distinction between the two.

  4. I suspect like most people I have a strong intuition that non-human animals are not morally equal to humans, and anyone who thinks they are holds a view that is morally abhorrent, in the terminology I am using, since it entails, inter alia, morally abhorrent conclusions, like it would be morally wrong to sacrifice an ‘innocent’ dog in order to save a human child. That is why I concluded my original comment by noting that the kinds of common moral intuitions people have about cases like using non-human animals to develop medical treatments to save human lives, or not killing human infants or disabled people, suggest, contra Singer (and others), that a moral preference for the human species is actually central to our moral judgments.

  5. But why is it central to our moral judgment? I mean how does it benefit us to have a preference for humans over animals. Evoluntionarily speaking wouldn’t it make more sense competition wise for us not to prefer our own species? And why are non humans not morally equal to humans? Is it because you relate more to humans, or that you prefer your own kind, because if that’s the case then isn’t this Singer’s point with the comparison of specieism to racism? I’m not sure you can use intuition as a means to conclude that the preference is correct or at least central or our moral judgment, especially if intuition is clouded by ignorance or prejudice. What if this intuition isn’t a preference for humans but rather a respect for life itself, regardless of the form it comes in, whether it be human or non human. Would this be morally abhorent too because it focuses on life instead of a particular species?

  6. Before I respond further, I’d like to know who I’m discussing these issues with.

  7. I’m not sure what you need to know about me, or why, but my name is Steph. Perhaps I came across disrespectfully, in which case I’m sincerely sorry and it was not my intention to offend. I’m a 28 yr old female, recent graduate of law school, I live in NY, I have an older sister and 2 parents, I’m 5’6, and have brown hair and blue eyes. I’m not sure if this satisfies your inquiry, hopefully it does and it is worthy enough to continue this discourse.

  8. Thanks, I really just wnated to know your name and whether you were a law professor or professor.

    I suppose if one thought that maximizing reproductive fitness were a relevant normative consideration, one might care about evolution in this regard, but I don’t, and I don’t see why one should. But if one did, it seems extraordinary to think that would favor the rights of non-human animals. Surely humans, in this perspective, should be allowed to exploit any and all creatures needed to maximize their reproductive fitness.

    An explanation for why we have the moral intuitions we do is also not of obvious relevance, unless the explanation undermined the intuitions, but it’s hard to see how they do that in this case. The real questions are these:

    1. Do you think it is morally permissible to sacrifice non-human animals in order to save human lives? Most people, I will venture, think the answer is a resounding yes.

    2. Do you think it is morally permissible to kill human infants or the severely disabled? Most people, I will venture, think the answer is a resounding no.

    If these are bedrock moral beliefs that people have–I suspet they are–then my hypothesis is that the only way to explain them, consistent with acknowledging the moral relevance of sentience (if not its overriding moral importance), is that a preference for the human species is central to our moral commitments.

  9. […] animals in self-defense is not morally wrongful. However, for the reasons that I pointed out in a previous post, I don’t believe that those who vote for this option hold “morally abhorrent […]

  10. Thanks for this…it says it all …and very well.

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