Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Veganism, Again

So our little poll generated quite a lot of interest.   Some vegans were delighted to see a poll on this subject (though some correspondents thought it an error to lay the emphasis on diet, rather than on the fact that vegans abstain from all animal products--a fair point, though not necessarily one that would have changed the poll choices), while others were plainly offended, especially by some of the poll choices.  (More on those in a moment.)  As a rough measure of views among law-related readers, the poll was marred by some external links:  a pro-vegan website sent 100+ voters, which no doubt explains how 19% of those voting claimed to be vegans, while everyone knows that nowhere close to 19% of law professors or law students are vegans.  But some links from conservative sites may have also skewed things in the other direction slightly, though those links sent far fewer voters.  And, of course, one imagines that those who feel strongly about veganism were more motivated to vote than others.  In any case, this obviously isn't rocket science; at best it gives us a very rough picture of attitudes among those connected to legal academia.   Anyway, here are the results with over 600 votes cast:


Which statement best expresses your attitude towards veganism?
Veganism is the morally most defensible dietary regimen, which is why I am a vegan
19% (120)
Veganism is the morally most defensible dietary regimen, and I admire those who adopt it and wish I could do the same
19% (121)
Veganism is neither morally commendable nor morally wrong, but is a reasonable personal choice for some individuals to make
49% (315)
Veganism is morally indefensible, and vegans have made a serious error in adopting such a dietary regimen
6% (38)
Veganism is disgusting
7% (45)


The triumph of the "tolerant" or "indifferent" option--the middle one--isn't too surprising.    Indeed, even allowing for the skewing from the vegan-mobilized vote, I would think this little survey (assuming it bears some relationship to reality) reflects a very accepting environment for vegans in our bit of the academy.  As readers of the social psychology literature on moral judgment by Haidt et al. know, "disgusting" as a response may or may not be correlated with moral disapproval, and more often than not is not underwritten by reasons or arguments, except post-hoc.  The harshest verdict--that veganism is morally indefensible--had relatively little traction, perhaps not surprisingly since "compassion for animals" seems like a nice thing, and, more importantly, because I doubt most folks have thought much about veganism. 

Since some readers wanted to know my own view (I didn't vote), I would say it is somewhere between "a reasonable personal choice" and a moral mistake.   I would be more inclined to the tolerant/indifferent posture except for the fact--as some responses by vegans to the poll made clear--that some vegans actually believe theirs is the moral high road, that it is not just superogatory (which I also doubt) but obligatory.  To the extent some vegans believe that, then they are making a real moral mistake, or so it seems to me.   This is a complex question, but I'll try to give a simplified explanation here for why I think this; no doubt I'll make mistakes of reasoning, though not, I hope ones, that affect the conclusion.  So I beg your indulgence.

Let's suppose, plausibly enough, that sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain) is a morally relevant characteristic.  Since animals are sentient, it seems there ought to be a moral obligation not to inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on them (a central part of the argument against "factory farming").  ("Animals" here will be shorthand for non-human animals, though some of these points, like sentience, also apply to human animals.)  That by itself simply wouldn't demand veganism as a response, since there are lots of ways to utilize animals and animal products that do not involve infliction of pain and suffering on them.  (I'll bracket the question of gratuitousness, though it seems to me that if one is a hedonist engaged in a calculation of pleasures and pains, it is far from obvious that there are not hedonistic reasons for some infliction of pain and suffering on animals that is not at all gratuitious--but, as I said, we can bracket that issue here.)   To be sure, many kinds of uses of animals and animal products require them to be dead, but as long as they are killed painlessly, we have discharged our duties in virtue of their sentience.  Now many vegans, I take it, think that killing animals, even painlessly, is wrong, but that simply does not follow from giving moral consideration to their sentience.  Indeed, as far as I can see, killing animals does not harm them at all, as long as it is done painlessly.  As far as hedonism goes, animals appear to be the proper subject of the Epicurean line on death:   "where death is, I am not, and where I am, death is not"--ergo death can not harm me.  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.)  Since animal's well-being is purely synchronic, rather than diachronic, they suffer no harm in dying or being killed (painlessly) for the Epicurean reasons.

Perhaps, though, veganism isn't to be grounded in Singer-style hedonic considerations.  Deontological or contractarian approaches, however, have a lot of trouble with showing that animals have any moral standing  (Kant certainly didn't think they had much), since non-human animals are not rational, can not promise, and can not respond to reasons.  Indeed, the strongest systematic case against the moral standing of animals, by Peter Carruthers, a very good philosopher at the University of Maryland, is argued from a contractarian perspective.  If we think about moral rightness and wrongness in Kantian terms, animals are, it seems to me, in big trouble!

Many vegans appear to think--I am going on conversations and reading web sites and some journal literature--that a principle of "compassion" and opposition to "cruelty" and "exploitation" underwrites their lifestyle.   Since most vegans are not opponents of capitalism, it is hard to know how seriously to credit this posture, but hypocrisy in application, needless to say, does not discredit the principled foundation for the lifestyle.  The difficulty is that, even putting to one side Nietzschean skepticism about Mitleid, "compassion" itself needs some kind of moral foundation or articulation.  Someone who didn't eat lettuce because it reflected a failure of compassion towards plants, or someone who thought climbing trees betrayed a willingness to exploit trees for human satisfaction would, I hope, not have much claim on our attention.  And what these examples show is that a principle of "compassion" or "non-exploitation" depends on some conception of what makes something morally important or deserving of moral consideration:  for example, sentience or rational agency.  So considerations of "compassion" don't seem to add anything to the moral arguments already mentioned.

So, to sum up, my own view is that veganism is a kind of harmless and in many ways sweet eccentricity (who can get mad about people who love animals?), but it crosses the line into a moral error insofar as people think it is morally obligatory or morally superior to non-vegan lifestyles.  I expect stating this plainly will open me up to lots of abuse, but since vegans do not, as far as I can see, have any arguments that can appeal to shared background attitudes, they probably have no choice.  As A.J. Ayer noticed long ago, "It is because argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value, as distinct from questions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse."  (Ayer, for reasons Peter Railton remarked on many years ago, was wrong about facts, which also presuppose background agreements in attitudes, but those agreements, happily, tend to be more robust.) 

UPDATE:  Bob Hockett (Cornell) has posted a nice exposition of Velleman's argument here.  I don't, however, entirely follow his objection to it, but I do commend his explanation of the argument to interested readers who don't have time to read the Velleman paper.

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