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Moral Concern, Moral Impulse, and Logical Argument in Animal Rights Advocacy

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Moral Concern, Moral Impulse, and Logical Argument in Animal Rights Advocacy

By Gary Francione, The Abolitionist Approach
June 2012

Anyone who has ever done animal advocacy has had the experience of explaining rationally why animal exploitation can’t be morally justified, only to have the person with whom they are talking say something like, “Yes, that’s interesting but I just don’t think that it’s wrong to eat animal products,” or “I think you’re being perfectly logical but I just love ice cream and cheese and am going to continue eating them.”

How can this be? How can people reject logical and rational arguments?

The answer is simple: logic and rationality are crucial to moral analysis. But they can’t tell us the whole story about moral reasoning. It’s more complicated than logical syllogisms. Moral reasoning—about animals or anything else—requires something more than logic. That something else involves two closely related but conceptually distinct notions: moral concern and moral impulse, which precede our engagement on a rational or logical level.

To put this in the context of animal ethics: in order to accept an argument that leads to the conclusion that all sentient beings are full members of the moral community and that we should abolish, and not regulate, animal exploitation, you must care morally about animals. You do not necessarily have to “like” or “love” animals. You do not have to have a house full of rescued animals or even have one rescued animal. But you have to accept that at least some animals are members of the moral community; that they are nonhuman moral persons to whom we have direct moral obligations.

And you have to want to act morally with respect to animals; you have to have a moral impulse concerning animals. You have to feel your moral beliefs in the sense that you want to do the right thing by animals. If you do, logic and rationality can be used to make compelling arguments that all sentient beings have that moral status and no animal exploitation can be morally justified.

But if you don’t care about animals morally and you don’t want to do right by them, then all of the arguments in the world won’t make much difference. If you do not think we owe animals anything, you won’t be very interested in arguments that concern which animals we have direct moral obligations to, or what those obligations require us to do.

Logic and Rationality: Necessary but not Sufficient

In my book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, I make a number of arguments based on logic and rationality. Here is just one:

  1.  The imposition of suffering on any sentient being requires an adequate moral justification and pleasure, amusement, or convenience cannot suffice as adequate to justify imposing suffering on any sentient being
  2. The most “humane” animal agriculture involves considerable suffering imposed on sentient beings
  3. As a general matter, our best (and only) justification for eating animal products is pleasure, amusement, or convenience
  4. Therefore: We cannot morally justify eating animal products

This is all very logical. But the argument is not going to go anywhere if you don’t accept the first premise and want to act on it. If you do not accept that you have any obligation to justify in a meaningful way the harm you impose on animals, we can’t even get started talking about animal ethics. Logic and rationality can help us to ascertain what we owe nonhuman moral persons but logic and rationality are useless in the face of someone who just does not care morally about animals and who rejects the notion that any justification for the imposition of harm is required.

Science is also useless where the first premise is concerned. There is no way to prove “scientifically” that we have an obligation to justify the imposition of harm on a sentient being. As any first-year philosophy student knows, you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

So why should we accept the first premise?

I maintain that the first principle is self-evidently true. All sentient beings matter morally and before I adversely affect the interests of any sentient being, I am obliged to justify my action. When I use “true” here, I mean it in the same sense that I mean it when I say that the cup on my desk is red. The statement, “The cup is red” expresses a true proposition. The cup on my desk is red. Similarly, the statement, “We need to have a morally sufficient justification for imposing suffering on any sentient being” expresses a true proposition that reflects our moral intuition that suffering is bad.

The proposition expressed in the statement, “And a sufficient justification must exclude pleasure, amusement, or convenience,” which could also be a separate premise, is also self-evidently true because if a sufficient justification could encompass such reasons, then nothing would be excluded by the principle. Think about it: to say, “We need a sufficient justification to harm a child but it is okay to hurt a child for no reason other than we want to” would render the principle requiring the justification of harm completely meaningless.

If someone were to ask me to prove the first premise with a scientific experiment or in some other way that would satisfy a strict empiricist, I could not do that. But so what? That does not mean the propositions expressed in the first premise are not true. Could someone deny the truth of the first premise? Sure they could. But someone could also deny the truth of the proposition concerning my red cup. We can be a skeptic when it comes to moral principles, but we can be a skeptic about anything. Who knows whether the cup is red? I may be hallucinating. I may not exist in the way that I think I do. I may be nothing more than a brain in a jar being stimulated by electrodes to have the experience of seeing a red cup, which does not exist at all.

I do not think that there is anything controversial in saying that the first premise is self-evidently true. I would posit that most people, when asked to think about it, would agree with the self-evidently true status of the first premise. Indeed, the theme of Introduction to Animal Rights is that we do claim to agree with the first premise but we fail to think rationally about what that moral rule means. That is, the problem is not that we cannot prove the first premise rationally; the problem is that although we claim to accept the moral truth of the principle, we either do not have the moral impulse to want to follow through with what we say we believe (and, as I explain below, I think that’s another way of saying we don’t really have moral concern) or we don’t think rationally about what that principle requires us to do in terms of practical action.

Simon the Sadist and Michael Vick

In Introduction to Animal Rights, I introduced the character of Simon the Sadist, who derived pleasure from blowtorching dogs. We would all regard such conduct as monstrous. The point of Simon as a character was to demonstrate that Simon’s conduct violates the principle that we all accept: that imposing suffering on a sentient being requires an adequate moral justification and Simon’s pleasure does not constitute an adequate moral justification. The rest of the book argued that our acceptance of this moral principle required that we regard all sentient beings, and not just dogs, as members of the moral community, and that we abolish all animal exploitation.

More recently, I have made the same points in the context of actual instances of harming animals, such as the matter involving Michael Vick. The reaction to Vick’s dog fighting was ubiquitous; everyone condemned him. And the reaction to Vick was not just criticism; people were morally outraged by his conduct. Why? The answer is simple: He violated a moral principle that the overwhelming majority of us accept; that we see as representing a moral truth. And given the acceptance of that principle, logic and rationality require that we also see that we cannot distinguish what Vick did from what anyone does who imposes suffering on any animal for no reason other than pleasure, amusement, or convenience. This understanding requires that we be vegan and that we seek to abolish all animal use.

If you see that the first premise is true as it concerns dogs and if you want to act morally with respect to those animals, neither of which are matters of logic or rationality, then analogical reasoning can be used to demonstrate that there is no morally relevant difference between the dogs you regard as members of the moral community, and all other sentient nonhumans. It’s a matter of logic only after there is an acceptance that animals, or at least some animals, matter morally. We can use logic and rationality to show that welfare reform and, indeed, anything short of abolition will fail to discharge our obligations to nonhumans given their moral significance.

But if we do not accept that animals have moral significance, then arguments about whether we should use animals, or how we should treat them, whether based on rights theory, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, or anything else, will make no sense.

As I discuss in Introduction to Animal Rights, the notion of equal inherent value is not in any way mysterious or metaphysical. It is a logical notion that concerns the minimal requirements for membership in the moral community, and it requires that we accord animals the moral right not to be treated as things. This is another way of saying that it requires that we abolish animal exploitation. But if we do not accept that animals belong in the moral community in the first place, or if we don’t care about acting morally, the notion of animals having equal inherent value is not going to be of much use.

We all reject human slavery because we recognize that it places those who are enslaved outside the moral community entirely; it reduces them to things. Given that we accept as a matter of moral intuition that all humans should be included in the moral community, that they should be regarded as moral persons and not things, then whatever else this requires, it requires that we abolish slavery. Similarly, if we see animals as having moral value, then, whatever else that requires, it requires that we abolish their status as property, as things, and that we treat them as moral persons. And this requires that we stop consuming them. Period.

But if we do not see any animals as having moral value–and that is a matter that cannot be “proved” in some “objective” or “scientific” way–then logical arguments about what animals should be regarded as moral persons and what moral personhood requires will be meaningless.

What is the Source of Moral Concern?

What if someone does not accept the first premise? What if someone simply does not see any animals as members of the moral community? Can we prove that they are wrong? Of course not.

Changing moral behavior requires some affective component. In order to be open to logical analysis of the animal issue, you have to see animals as members of the moral community and have to want to act on that insight. That is not a matter of logic and rationality. You have to feel that what Simon the Sadist is doing to the dogs is bad; that what Michael Vick did to his dogs was bad.

A similar way of thinking about moral concern is offered by Professor Gary Steiner, who discusses the concept of kinship with nonhumans in his book, Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship. Steiner argues that we need some concept of kinship, or felt connection between human and nonhumans, as a prelude to serious thinking about animal ethics.

I agree with Steiner in that I think that most of us have a predisposition to a sense of kinship with animals. It needs merely to be awakened; we need to become aware of it. This awareness enables us to see the truth of the first premise. This awareness can be triggered by many things, alone or in combination with others:

It can come from our relationship with a companion animal.

It can come from a perception about the interconnectedness of life, or of some norm such as the “golden rule.” This may have a spiritual or non-spiritual dimension.

It can come from embracing the principle of nonviolence as a fundamental moral truth. Again, this may have a spiritual or non-spiritual dimension.

It can come from a religious perspective, such as the one that Francis of Assisi had.

It can come from visiting a slaughterhouse.

It can come from reading literature or poetry.

It can come from some aesthetic experience.

In short, there are many occasions for becoming aware of our moral concern. But whether we call it moral concern or a sense of kinship, it is imperative to understand that this must include a moral impulse to want to follow through and to act in ways that recognize and respect the moral value of animals or that actualizes our kinship with them.

Once we have moral concern or sense of kinship that includes the moral impulse and want to do the right thing by animals, then it makes sense to talk about using logic and rationality to argue to particular conclusions about the scope of the class of nonhuman persons (in my view, all sentient beings) and what their status as moral beings requires of us (in my view the abolition of all animal use). Until we have this moral concern and the impulse to want to act in a way that recognizes the moral status of animals, logic and rationality will fall on deaf ears.

Abolitionist Advocacy

If someone accepts the first premise (and please remember that, in this essay, I am only talking about one of the many arguments I make in my work), then we can argue logically and rationally that they should stop eating, wearing, or otherwise consuming all animal products and should go vegan. They should support the abolition, and not the regulation, of animal exploitation.

But when we engage in this sort of educational activity, we are generally not using logic and rational argument to try to convince someone of the truth of the first premise; we are using logic and rational argument to get the person to see that her moral concern about animals, properly understood, requires that she come to certain conclusions (veganism and abolition) rather than to other conclusions (“compassionate” consumption, “happy” animal products, welfare regulation, drawing lines between meat and dairy or between fish and cows, etc.).

Is it possible for someone to say, “I care about animals and I agree with your logical analysis but I like animal products so much that I am not going to stop eating them”? Sure it is. But that sort of situation is generally not one that involves a failure of logic or rational analysis. Rather, the person making such a statement most likely does not really regard animals as having moral significance irrespective of what she says. There is a lack of moral concern.

For example, there are people who fetishize dogs or cats. They do not really think of these animals as members of the moral community. Rather, they have some aesthetic or other possibly obsessional reaction to them that is really no different from the sort of reactions that people may have to cars or clothing or other things. We have all encountered eccentric people who are obsessed with dogs and have a house full of them but who eat every other sort of animal and who will not even engage on the matter of animal ethics. Caring about animals in a moral way is not a matter of “liking” them or thinking that they are “cute.” It is a matter of moral vision; of seeing animals as beings with moral significance and caring about that insight.

Alternatively, we can say that such people have moral concern but lack moral impulse. In my view, to really have moral concern is to have a moral impulse. The best guide to what a person believes morally is what she does. So although I think that moral concern and moral impulse can be separated for purposes of explanation, I regard moral concern in the absence of moral impulse to really be an absence of moral concern.

There are, of course, situations where someone believes that some animals have moral value but does not accept the analogical argument that all sentient beings are full members of the moral community.

For example, some animal advocates, such as Peter Singer, regard all sentient beings as members of the moral community but regard only those with humanlike cognition and, in particular, a humanlike sense of self-awareness, as full members of the moral community. Singer rejects my argument that all sentient beings are similarly situated in that all sentient beings value their own continued existence even if they do not all think about existence in the same way as “normal” humans do.

There are also situations in which someone believes that animals have moral value but rejects the argument that abolition is the only rational response to recognizing that animals matter morally.

Virtually the entire animal “movement,” as represented by the large new welfarist organizations, disagrees with me about the structural problems with animal welfare reform and the need for an abolitionist vegan baseline. They claim that welfare reform will make matters better for animals now and will lead to good consequences for animals in the future. I disagree.

There are situations in which people claim to regard animals as members of the moral community but also claim that we can apply a framework to analyze our moral obligations to animals that is different from the one we use with respect to humans.

For example, some have argued that we should not talk about moral rights or generally applicable rules and that instead, we should be guided by an “ethic of care” that takes into account all of the particulars of a situation. But these people would never apply an ethic of care to fundamental issues involving humans. For example, no advocate of the ethic of care would argue that the morality of rape was dependent on whether that conduct was undertaken with “care” in a particular situation. Rape is always wrong because it violates a right of bodily integrity. Similarly, where fundamental animal interests are involved, we must use a similar analysis and cannot say that “care” suffices or we ignore an essential aspect of moral analysis: the requirement that we treat similar cases in a similar way.

In all three cases, we need to focus on what logic and rationality tell us given that we all agree that animals matter morally and we want to do what is right; we want to know what our moral obligations are. Logic and rationality are an important part of identifying moral obligations precisely because we regard animals as members of the moral community and we have the moral impulse to do what is right with respect to nonhuman animals.

But the important point for present purposes remains that in all cases, the source of that moral concern or moral impulse is irrelevant.

If someone cares about animals as moral beings, it does not matter whether her moral impulse was triggered as the result of her relationship with a companion animal, reading about St. Francis, reading a novel like Black Beauty or a poem, such as Byron’s Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog, believing in the principle of nonviolence, or the golden rule, or the interconnectedness of life, or as the result of her aesthetic revulsion to bullying.

What matters is that she has the moral concern and the desire to want to act in accordance with it. What matters is that she sees the moral truth of the first premise at least with respect to some animals. What matters is that she accepts as a moral truth that at least some animals are members of the moral community; that they matter morally. What matters is that she perceives the need to act in accordance with her concern. It is then and only then–when she wants to do the right thing with respect to the animals that she thinks matter morally–that we can use logic and rationality to demonstrate that her moral concern should extend to all animals and that it requires that we abolish, and not regulate, animal use. It requires that she stop participating in animal exploitation. She may not accept, or accept immediately, the arguments for equality, abolition, and veganism but she really won’t even understand them in the absence of a moral concern about animals.

The notion that moral concern or a sense of kinship or whatever you want to call it cannot come about as the result of her religious or spiritual views is as silly as saying that moral concern cannot be awakened as the result of a relationship with a companion animal without any involvement of religion or a spiritual tradition. Religion and spiritual traditions are a problem in this regard only when they limit moral concern and decrease the class of those about whom we care morally; only when they restrict a sense of kinship; only when they encourage violence rather than nonviolence. And let’s not pretend that secular frameworks cannot similarly limit moral concern. They can, and they are equally objectionable.

Frankly, I do not care whether a person regards nonhumans as members of the moral community because of their religious or spiritual views or their atheistic views or their agnostic views or any other framework.

I don’t care whether the source of someone’s moral concern for animals is reading the Sermon on the Mount and being inspired to think that Jesus was referring to all beings, or whether the concern and inspiration comes from reading the poetry of Byron, who was an atheist, or, as in my case, visiting a slaughterhouse and coming to understand at a fundamental level that the principle of nonviolence is meaningless if it does not include all sentient beings. It was then that I understood the implications of the moral intuition that suffering is bad; that suffering and death always need to be justified by a compelling reason.

I am not saying that we should use the source of our moral concern to argue for animal rights. That would make no sense. If the source of someone’s moral concern for animals is that she read Black Beauty as a child, I am not saying that we should promote reading Black Beauty as a means of advocating animal rights. Indeed, there are plenty of people who read Black Beauty as children and who did not become vegans. But that book (or any number of countless other books, experiences, etc.) may have triggered the moral impulse in someone that makes her receptive to rational arguments we can make as abolitionists to get her to see all sentient beings as members of the moral community and veganism as the only coherent response given her moral concern. But if she has no moral concern in the first place, she will not be receptive to those arguments.

As long as there is moral concern and the moral impulse to want to do the right thing by animals, we can use rationality to demonstrate why this moral concern should extend to all animals and why abolition and veganism are the logically appropriate responses to the felt recognition, whatever its source, that animals are members of the moral community.

But in the absence of wanting to do the right thing, it will make no sense to discuss what logic identifies as the right thing to do.