Thursday, July 23, 2009

Peter Singer and the Catering of HSUS Events

The Arkansas Times published a review today of a new restaurant in the city of Hillcrest. Calling it a "burger joint" with a menu that makes it seem like a "gastropub", the article describes it as

the latest among, suddenly, many practicing a gourmet, organic brand of localism. Which is to say, its meat is “grass fed”; its produce and bread local, and its condiments, fries and just about everything else house-made. Michael Pollan's sphere of influence knows no bounds.
It seems that this new locavore fast-food lovers haven features an item that's been eliciting snickers from across the board:
The Peter Singer ($9), named, cheekily, for the “Animal Liberation” author, stands out in particular. It starts with what must be the answer to Miller's kitchen quest to find the ideal patty — a half-pound slab of ground lamb, pork, beef and roasted garlic. That comes topped with roasted tomatoes, basil mozzarella and basil mayo and on, as all the House's burgers are, a Boulevard Bread Co. bun.
Whether or not the intention was to take a good poke at him, any serious animal rights advocate familiar with the increasingly public slippery sloping of Singer's opinions and influence since the publication of his unfortunately misnamed book, Animal Liberation, can appreciate the actual lack of irony in it.

Maybe if they get on board with HSUS' "Saves the Seals" campaign, they'll get to cater the organization's next fundraiser! They can find out all about HSUS' requirements for such things right here in Professor Gary L. Francione's recent blog post on his Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach website.


unpopular vegan essays said...

The summum bonum of Animal 'Liberation' and new welfarism. Sadly, it will never get any better than this for the regulationists.

Unknown said...

It it unclear to me exactly why you describe Singer's "Animal Liberation" as "unfortunately misnamed".

I can understand objections to Singer casually using the term "animal rights" in his less philosophical moments because it results in confusion given that he does not genuinely believe in rights for humans or nonhumans.

"Animal Liberation" seems to be the appropriate term for Singer to be using...even if we object to some of his claims. Surely, it would be uncharitable, at best, to accept no title other than "Animal Regulation" or something of the sort.

unpopular vegan essays said...

I see the book as misnamed, not because "liberation" has any specific meaning that I want to defend, but because if what Singer stands for is liberation, then it really sucks to be the victim of liberation. Singer's book should have been titled Utilitarianism and Animal Welfare. I don't see that as umcharitable; I see it as perfect accurate.

Unknown said...


Yes, your proposed title is not uncharitable nor is it inaccurate.

But to push the issue a bit further largely because I am curious as to your thoughts, I still think "liberation" is apt because Singer's aim is that equal interests be given equal weight in our moral decision making. If that occurs, then no one is being exploited...even if suffering persists or if killing occurs.

Singer's mistakes do not seem to be the result of his moral theory but rather due to certain factual errors on his part that then produce objectionable results. This is analogous to feeding bad data into an otherwise acceptable mathematical formula...the resulting answer is unlikely to be correct.

As you know, Singer doesn't believe animals have an interest in their own continued existence and so it would make no sense for him to try to safeguard this interest. But, Singer could change his mind about this fact without having to alter his moral theory.

The point is that if equal interests are given equal consideration (apart from determining who has what interests) then there is no exploitation occurring.

Unknown said...


The problem is that the utilitarian claim that's being made - animal USE isn't the problem, so long as we treat them nicely - falls apart in comparison to the popular usage of "liberation" in human social movements all OVER the place. I think that drawing THAT connection was entirely Singer's intent. (Of course, I can't crack open his head and peek inside, but I don't think it's outlandish to assume so.)

Imagine if we made a utilitarian claim about the LGBT movement and called THAT "liberation" of LGBT people:

"You know, it's not really that inequality for queer people is a *fundamental problem*. We just need to treat them nicer. They'll still be second class citizens, but we just need to make their lot more comfortable, while we're doing this to them."

Would queer people really be liberated from oppression by that?

Unknown said...

Ward -

Singer would apply the same standard to the LGBT movement, but would not consider that as making them second class citizens or as maintaining the inequality that currently exists.

Singer is applying the same standard to all individuals regardless of species membership (or sexual orientation); so it's unfair to describe that as permitting inequality.

Using animals if it results in the greatest possible consequences is allowed but not on the basis of their being nonhuman. Society could likewise use you and me in ways that may seem objectionable by ordinary standards if it results in the greatest possible consequences for members of the moral community (including nonhuman members).

Liberation seems fitting because if Singer's goal were realized, animals would not have their interests discounted based on their species memberships.

Again, I think Singer's mistake is failing to recognize many of the interests that animals do have and therefore failing to take those interests into account when doing moral calculations...but this is a factual rather than a theoretical error.

Thanks both Dan & Ward for your thoughts.

unpopular vegan essays said...


I agree with you that Singer has made factual errors, and I will add that those factual errors are profound and strongly speciesist. That Singer has made those errors in AL and defended them for three decades (!) makes liberation an absurd word in the book's title.

Even if Singer didn't make factual errors, however, I don't accept the basic premise of utilitarianism that sees sentient individuals as recepticles of X value to be considered in a calculation of variables as opposed to having a non-negotiable inherent value whereby their most crucial interests (such as an interest in continuing to live) are protected by rights.

I also believe that given that humans have an impossibly difficult time respecting others' rights even when we acknowledge those rights conceptually, the utilitarian calculus is doomed to failure in application because of the human tendency to be wildly irrational and self-biased whenever even thinking about ethics, much less trying to 'calculate' something as hopelessly difficult as value utility.

unpopular vegan essays said...

I should add that as a result of the overwhelming likelihood of utilitarianism being misapplied, even if Singer had not made factual errors, nonhumans still wouldn't be liberated until the property and commodity status was abolished and we recognized certain basic rights. Therefore, liberation is a problematic word (albeit less problematic than now) even if Singer did recognize nonhumans' interest in life.

Unknown said...

Right, exactly. A critique based on inherent rights doesn't pull out the moral calculator and do the math before we decide not to torture an individual human -- because we assume by default that humans have not just an interest in not being tortured, but an *inherent right not to be tortured.*

The problem with utilitarianism is that it ignores - completely - the fact that the vast majority of humans *do not think this way* with respect to other humans. The whole argument is weighted *against* the fundamental interests of animals, and instead proposes to come up with a "more moral" use of animals.

Singer *as an individual* may think abstractly all day long about these issues. It doesn't particularly matter. It has no bearing at all on how humans actually behave in the real world.

Unknown said...

...and if it needs to be said, yes, I'm fully aware that with respect to the unfolding torture investigations there are some folks who are making a sort of utilitarian claim: torture was "justified" because large numbers of people benefitted from it.

They're wrong.

They're not just *factually* wrong (which is a whole separate discussion), they're *inherently* wrong.

Unknown said...

Dan & Ward-

I agree that Singer's factual mistakes are profound and speciest--and that they have terrible consequences for animals. But I think that Singer's glaring errors have caused many to dismiss utilitarianism too quickly. Singer's application of the theory can be criticized without rejecting the theory outright.

I also agree that in the speciesist society we live in, people are often going to discount the interests of animals when attempting utilitarian calculations...just as they have and no doubt still discount the interess of other oppressed groups. This doesn't seem to be a criticism of the theory anymore than the existence of rights violations serves as a criticism of rights-based theories.

Furthermore utilitarians have, at least to me, convincingly addressed the above criticism. Utilitarians do not suggest that we do the math before every single action we take...that would be highly implausible. Rather we would often do better by relying on heuristics such as "Do Not Kill"...generally that rule produces good consequences, even if it is not appropriate in every conceivable situation.

If we know that we live in a speciesist society, we have to be particularly suspect of calculations that involve animals knowing that there is a predisposition to discount their interests.

Finally, utilitarianism seems to be a preferable moral theory in that it addresses how to proceed when interests conflict. Positing the existence of rights seems to be akin to granting a lot of IOUs that can't always realistically be cashed...we need to know how to proceed in situations where significant interests of individuals clash; how to fairly ajudicate those conflicts. said...

Ian said: ''Singer's mistakes do not seem to be the result of his moral theory but rather due to certain factual errors on his part that then produce objectionable results. This is analogous to feeding bad data into an otherwise acceptable mathematical formula...the resulting answer is unlikely to be correct. ''

That's an interesting take on the relationship between moral theory and the recognition of facts – the former as existing independently of the latter, as it were. Contrastingly, I would suggest that theory is based on the assessment of what it is not, i. e., what we refer to as facts, and that Singer's moral concept is based on his fundamental error about nonhumans' interest in their lives which he denies.

Concerning the notion that people's discounting of nonhumans' interests supports a criticism of utilitarianism no more than rights violations refute rights-based theories, the difference is that people's discounting of nonhumans' interest is the result of the application of utilitarianism to practice, whereas rights violations are the result of the non-application of rights-based theories to practice.

unpopular vegan essays said...

Why not just use rights as an effective tool to protect basic, crucial interests and then perform the utility calculations *after* basic rights have been given priority?

Unknown said...

Dan -

Rights have the potential to result in a net increase in suffering.

This is because rights serve as constraints as to how we may go about achieving our goals. If I have a right to X, then I can do X even if it results in the vital interests of others going unmet.

Furthermore, the increase in net suffering is not a sufficient reason to override a right because the whole point of protecting something with a right is to render it immune to cost-benefit analysis or consequentialist calculations.

unpopular vegan essays said...


All moral theories are fatally flawed in genuine dilemmas. I'm a moral intuitionist. As I see it, moral theories are only useful as tools to guide and align our intuitions for consistency.

Minimizing suffering or maximizing pleasure or preference is only one goal of many goals in moral and ethical thought. Keeping promises is another. Preserving the most basic and crucial interests of individuals is another. Ultimately we can debate the resolution of dilemmas all day long, but in the end, no matter what we do in a dilemma, as long as the resolution was reasonable, we were both right and wrong.

What I find particularly self-centered is that most humans insist on rights for themselves, but are all too ready to reject rights for nonhumans. Singer doesn't commit this particular speciesism, but he has a very deluded and speciesist view of sentient nonhumans. (I know you agreed with that earlier, but it fit here to repeat it.)

Unknown said...

Hey Dan,

That was exactly my point; I suppose I just phrased it badly.

It's sixteen different kinds of fun to argue that utilitarianism might be employed with respect to resolving moral dilemmas where two conflicting sets of *human* interests conflict.

The simple reality is that we almost NEVER do this.

Claiming utilitarian justification to human torture - even if it could be demonstrated to be *correct* - would still be regarded as *inherently* wrong by the vast majority of humans.

We only ever seem to *actually* use utilitarianism when we want to make a claim that animal welfare is doing something meaningful to reduce animal suffering. The rest of the time (with respect to humans relating to other humans) we seem to have no problem proceeding from some basic understanding that humans possess some inherent rights that are inviolate.

We may not agree on what each and every one of those rights may *be*, but we generally agree that some core set of them *exists* nevertheless.

Unknown said...

One problem with rights based views is that rights seem to come for free. They are conversation stoppers, so to speak.

If rights can be asserted even when doing so results in a net increase in suffering (and if they can't then they are superfluous); then what stops the omnivore from asserting a right to consume other animals?

That it harms others is not a sufficient reason to object; asserting rights often harms others.

All we can seemingly do is assert that animals have rights not to be used in such ways.

So two parties assert conflicting sets of seems like the only thing that can then be done is a lot shouting and perhaps table-pounding. No?

By the way - I appreciate your patience and willingness to engage in this discussion. Ultimately, I suspect we may reach a lot of the same conclusions even if our theoretical paths to those conclusions differ.

Unknown said...

Rights *do* come for free. They're axiomatic. You either accept a given right, or you don't. Utilitarianism is trying to glom a rational framework on top of that to make extending *some ethical consideration* to animals seem rational, so long as we're still allowing ourselves to use them.

I reject that approach, completely, because it's just not the way we see things with regard to other humans, except in very minority cases.

If humans have some basic rights - let's start with something transnational like the UN Declaration of Human Rights - which are reasonable and good for society in general to afford to *all* humans, without resorting to hopelessly abstracted claims about "least suffering for greatest good" or "social contracts", I can't see any reason *not* to extend the same notion of basic, inherent rights to nonhumans as well.

Yes, rights will conflict. But they conflict for humans, *too*. My right to marry (if it exists) arguably conflicts with a given Christian's claim that marriage is a social contract that exists between persons of the opposite sex only. Resolution of those conflicts can be tricky to navigate, but we resolve them by grinding away at the *derived* rights to try and arrive at the *foundational* rights, and then by trying to assess if the foundational rights of one group are being ignored to give preference to the wishes of another group.

What I'm saying is that there's a set of core moral rights that exist for animals - not because we grant them as a result of a "rational construction" like utilitarianism, but simply because they're my fellow sentients. They get these rights "for free" by virtue of their existence.

Just as we don't consider reciprocation of interests before we decide that eating infants is immoral, we can't *really* make a way forward to a *rights based culture* for nonhumans with utilitarianism as the underlying guide, because that guide is *by definition* not about rights, inherent or otherwise.

unpopular vegan essays said...


In addition to what Ward said, we need to distinguish between basic rights to the most crucial interests versus non-basic rights to non-crucial interests. Basic rights are foundational and always trump non-basic rights. The only dilemma we could have is a conflict between opposing basic rights, but such conflicts are virtually non-existent in our exploitation of sentient nonhumans. We are always violating their basic foundational rights for our trivial preferences (rarely are even non-basic rights encountered).

The primary right for nonhumans that we argue for is that they simply be left alone. It is extremely speciesist to talk about the 'cost' to us in leaving them alone (ie not breeding, confining, torturing, and intentionally killing them) since we would never talk seriously about the cost to us in not doing the same to humans.

Diana Meinor said...

It hardly seems necessary to create a two tier system of rights consisting of basic rights and non-basic rights to insure that crucial interests take preference over non-crucial interests. Utilitarianism is necessarily going to place greater weight on crucial interests.

Utilitarianism insures that my interests (crucial or otherwise) can only be denied if necessary to fulfill the greater interests of others. That seems like the only good reason to frustrate someone's interests.

Rights, on the other hand, allow my interests to be frustrated for the sake of the lesser interests of others. That seems like a pretty good definition of exploitation.

Finally and not so much in the way of argument, I should say that I find utilitarianism to capture a significant portion of my moral intuitions...I don't think it is that foreign to how we sort out human affairs in many cases. Legal rights, such as a right to marry, are a totally different matter and should not be confused with moral rights. I am sure Singer, who as you both obviously know, rejects rights on philosophical grounds, supports voting rights for women and rights to free speech...but these are legal rights that we invent in the hopes of maximizing the good.

gfrancione said...

Dear All:

I believe that even utilitarians are committed to one moral right: the right to equal consideration.

The problem is that if animals are property, their interests will always count for less than the interests of property owners.

And before someone says that this is not true because we give equal (or even greater) weight to the interests of our "pets," that is true only for those who do NOT regard their "pets" as their property.

I believe that Bentham, a utilitarian, rejected slavery because he recognized that the interests of slaves could, as a structural matter, never receive equal consideration. Bentham did not apply this to animals because he believed that animals were not self-aware and did not care about whether we used them but only how we used them. Singer also promotes this idea (but exempts nonhuman great apes).

By the way, Singer Nad Bentham necessarily accept at least a form of rule utilitarianism because both assumed that we should not use humans as resources. For example, Singer does not ask (as an act utilitarian would) whether killing human X and taking X's organs for transplant into Y, Z, P, and Q would maximize utility. He has a presumption against the resource use of normal humans because they are not easily "replaceable."

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

unpopular vegan essays said...


You say rights violate your interests in favor of others lesser interests. I can't imagine a case where rights would ever do this since the whole idea of basic rights is to protect the most important interests against lesser interests of others.

Because utilitarianism is so narrow in its assessment of the "good" (ie only preference or pleasure utility is good), it is necessarily excessively narrow as a theory embracing all moral decisions or assessments. As a result of its narrowness, it also violates moral intuitions in many cases.

Also, utilitarianism is hopelessly flawed in application because of the absurdity of assigning (quantitative?) value weights and performing a (mathematical?) calculation of the "results". Even if a given human is absolutely unbiased, it is impossible to assign "accurate" (or even reasonable) weight to the different kinds of preferences or pleasures for performing the moral arithmetic.

Further, as I indicated earlier, humans are very poor at unbiased moral calculation, weighting themselves and their kin far heavier than others. In fact, most humans are poor at even non-moral, numerical calculation. Humans, being individuals with crucial interests, however, do generally understand protecting those crucial interests with rights. When those rights don't exist, humans generally assume that violating those crucial interests is fine whenever it is in our selfish interest to do so. Rights fits much better with human psychology.

Utilitarians who see utilitarianism as the only theory needed to assess any moral situation are, to be frank, myopic dogmatists. Maximiziing utility is only one aspect of moral thinking.

Unknown said...

I will attempt to provide a more tangible example of how rights can/do result in a net increase in suffering.

I presumably have a right to certain bodily integrity (I'm trying to pick a widely recognized right) that would include control over the organs of my body. I have two kidneys but really only need one. At comparatively little cost to myself I could donate a kidney and save a life.

Alternatively, I could assert my right to keep both kidneys (who knows maybe I'll need a second one someday) and watch people waiting for kidney donations die.

My asserting this right has cost someone their life. We expect others to willingly die so as to honor our right to have a "back-up" kidney.

Countless examples could be generated given whatever set of rights you are prepared to acknowledge.

unpopular vegan essays said...

I've been having this entire discussion from an iPhone and I getting very tired of typing on it. Also, this discussion is beginning to become repetitive, a sure sign to move on to brighter horizons. So, I'm going to stay out of it now other than to clarify or correct misunderstandings and umcharitable or false statements.

One last thing I'll say, however: Gary is absolutely correct that nonhumans will NEVER catch a break from the current severity of cruelty and number of victims annually until the majority of people in society are vegans and the property status of nonhumans is abolished. Regardless of what moral theory one clings to (or not), this fact is so blatantly obvious that one must be living in a vastly different universe than I am to deny it.

Unknown said...

Dan - You are right. The conversation may be reaching a point of diminishing marginal to speak.

I also agree with you and Gary when you say "nonhumans will NEVER catch a break from the current severity of cruelty and number of victims annually until the majority of people in society are vegans and the property status of nonhumans is abolished".

I just don't think that we need rights to recognized the value and urgency of the above goals. If right action is determined by consequences and welfarism doesn't produce good consequences for animals, then an abolitionist approach can be defended on purely utilitarian grounds.

I believe that Francione makes a similiar point inthe intro to Introduction to Animal Rights...suggesting that Singer, even given his preferred moral theory, should be an abolitionist.

Dan, you've been a most generous and thoughtful interlocutor.

unpopular vegan essays said...


First, kidney donations are dangerous and can lead to the eventual pre-mature death of the donor, so to make it sound like you're lending someone spare change is very misleading.

Second, forcing people to do such things is egalitarian fascism the way I see it. Bad stuff happens in life. We shouldn't be *forced* to smooth life's natural and haphazard bumps into a uniform glass plate.

Tomorrow, I'll have a keyboard, and I'll give good examples of utilitarianism's moral bankruptcy when it is taken as a dogma instead of a useful tool to consider (among other tools such as rights).

Unknown said...

Dan -

First, we may have different impressions as to how dangerous a kidney donation is...but trying to live without a kidney is infinitely more dangerous, that's all that matters for the sake of the example. The risk does not seem so great that I can argue against accepting the risk in order to save a life.

Second, suggesting that donating a kidney is morally required does not commit one to arguing that people should be forced to do so.

There are many things that are widely held to be morally required that we don't think it would be appropriate or fruitful to force people to do. For example, we can certainly agree that eating meat, drinking milk, etc is morally prohibited. But it would be foolish to attempt to use either the law or brute force to stop people from eating meat. It's an immorality that must be addressed in other ways.

I'll look forward to your thoughts tomorrow when you have access to a keyboard.

unpopular vegan essays said...


Thanks, it has been a nice discussion.

I'll add one quick note: I see consequences as only one aspect of morality. I see the well-meaning intention of the actor as another aspect of morality. I see obligations and promises as another aspect.

My view of morality is pluralistic. I consider it to be disastrous to focus solely on one aspect, such as consequences (or any other single aspect). Again, I think moral philosophers who cling to one theory or goal to navigate morality are dogmatists who ignore very important aspects in favor one single aspect and make poor decisions and assessments as a result.

unpopular vegan essays said...


Rights are to protect others from forcing things like kidney donations. Just because I have a right to keep both kidneys doesn't mean I can't choose to donate one. Since the right protects only against forcing me (by law, say) to donate, so if society would never force me to donate a kidney, then you shouldn't be concerned about my right to the 'extra' kidney'.

Unknown said...

Two points:

One - there is a difference in the criteria that I would use to assess the morality of an action and the moral character of an agent. To assess the morality of an action (what I've been focusing on thus far) one need only to look at consequences. Motivations and intentions become relevant if we shift to assessing moral character.

Two - are you suggesting that people can be morally blameworthy for asserting their moral rights? That people can have a moral right to engage in morally repugnant behavior? I think that one doesn't have a moral right to refuse to donate a kidney but that for practical purposes we should give people that legal right. But my support for that legal right is based purely on the anticipated consequences...I suspect that wouldn't be very good.

Legal rights and moral rights must be kept distinct.

Unknown said...

Hey Prof. Fracione,

That's exactly what I MEAN. My reading of Singer (yes, I both own and have read "Animl Lib" heh) seems to *always* weight the utilitarian calculation *in favor of a human's use* of a given animal while exempting humans *from use in nearly all cases.* Beyond a fairly superficial claim that "some humans may be non-persons" I don't know that he's really ever making a legitimately *equal* consideration.

unpopular vegan essays said...


You said: “To assess the morality of an action (what I've been focusing on thus far) one need only to look at consequences.”

This is patently false, and an example will prove it.

Situation A: Driver A is driving a car 20 mph in a 25mph zone. A child runs out in front of A’s car. A slams on the breaks and tries desperately to avoid hitting the child, but hits the child going 15mph and kills him. Drive A is the victim of very bad luck.

Situation B: Driver B is driving a car 10mph in the same 25mph zone. A child is in the street. B intentionally hits the accelerator and intentionally swerves the car into the child, hitting and killing the child at 15mph. Driver B has intentionally killed the child.

The consequences are identical: car kills child at 15 mph in a 25 mph zone, but the intent of the drivers ENTIRELY decides the morality of each situation.

Consequentialism is myopic.

Your kidney example is a very poor one because we each have drastically different empirical judgments of the risk of donating a kidney. You appear to believe it is risk-free. I believe it is life-threatening. So our disagreement is not on the morality of the case, but on the facts of the case. Please pick a better example if you want to discuss this intelliegently.

unpopular vegan essays said...

In addition to my last comment, I should add that there are at least three elements in assessing the morality of an act: 1) the intent of the agent; 2) the act itself; 3) the consequences following from the act. Of course, there's even more to it than that, such as the circumstances surrounding the intent, act, and consequences (e.g. the motivation behind the act, the psychological state of the agent, etc).

Unknown said...

Dan -

As the scope of our conversation widens, I realize I need to provide a greater degree of detail than initially seemed either necessary or desirable.

There is a pretty straightforward way to distinguish between Drive A and Driver B. Perhaps it was too quick to say that all one needs to look at are consequences.

Morality cannot require that we do the impossible..."ought implies can" as moral philosophers are fond of saying.

So we have to look at the range of possible actions available to an agent in a given situation. The moral action is the one from the range of possible actions that has the best consequences for all effected parties (we may, of course, differ on how to define best consquences...i for example, differ from Singer on this question...but that's a tangent).

The set of possible actions for Driver A is quite clearly different from the set of possible actions for Driver B.

Avoiding hitting the child was not an available option for Drive A; Driver A therefore did not select a suboptimal course of action and therefore did nothing wrong. Driver A maximized the good in his situation...even if all options were not very pleasant.

Driver B could have avoided hitting the child and chose not to. Driver B selected a course of action that was not optimal in terms of consequences and therefore did do something wrong.

Of course, the intentions of the two different drivers do become relevant if we want to assess their moral character....their intentions are not relevant for assessing their actions. Driver A would have still done the right thing even if motivated by the fact that he didn't want the child's bike to scratch his new car. This would of course affect our assessment of Driver A's character.

If you do not like the kidney example, perhaps scaling it back to simple blood donations. The risk associate with donating blood is clearly quite small...though, of course, not non-existent. It is generally thought that people can opt or refrain from donating blood and in fact only a small portion of the population does this.

unpopular vegan essays said...


You insist that intentions have nothing to do with the moral evaluation of an act. I think you are wrong. Here is another example of how intentions determine whether or not an act was morally right or not and consequences are irrelevant.

Driver A and driver C are both in the same situation as my first example. Driver A slammed on the breaks, swerved to avoid, but hit and killed the child. Driver C is in the same situation, but reacted a fraction of a second before A did and brushed the child with the car, not harming him.

Both drives had the exact same intention, and both took the same action, but purely by luck, C noticed the child a half second earlier (or just happened to be a few feet further down the road when the child was noticed). Same intention; same action; drastically different consequences. I say both acts were morally right and precisely morally equal. The consequences, in this case, don’t matter at all in determining who acted in the morally right way: they both did.

I'm not saying consequences never matter. I'm just claiming that they are not the only thing that matters. Moral evaluation is too complex for a blunt tool like utiltiarianism to navigate it by itself.

Blood donation is a much better example. I don’t consider blood donation to be a serious sacrifice or a serious risk to one’s well-being (given a normal healthy adult). I don’t think a normal, healthy adult should have a right to refuse a blood donation assuming the normal protocols for safety are followed. Where the line is between blood donations and organ donations from normal, healthy adults is, I don’t know. But I would only assert a moral right to avoid being forced to make a substantial sacrifice or take a substantial risk for another. Sunstantial sacrifices and risks are noble and praiseworthy, but they are supererogatory.

Unknown said...

Dan -

Probably not to your surprise, I don't find your example entirely convincing.

Driver A and Driver C
can seemingly be distinguished in ways similar to how Driver A and Driver B were distinguished.

That Driver C reacted a split second faster suggests that Driver C may have better reflexes or noticed the child in his or her path a slight second sooner...thus making it possible to avoid the child in a way that is not possible for Driver A. Their abilities may be slightly different...and therefore the demands of morality would also be slightly different.

Both acts can be right in each situation because the agent seems to have done the best of all possible actions available to him or her.

But, perhaps Driver A could be faulted for failing to develop certain abilities or for being insufficiently attentive while driving but that would again introduce morally relevant differences bewteen the two cases.

Even if Driver A did do somthing wrong...say it was within Driver A's ability to avoid the child...your verdict seems more relevant more concerned about praiseworthy v. blameworthy actions.

I would suggestion that right v. wrong is a different distinction that does not correspond with the praiseworthy v. blameworthy distinction. We can have right actions that are blameworthy and wrong actions that are praiseworthy. Praise and blame, from a consequentialist perspective, should be issued to encourage or discourage act-types.

We may blame someone for a right act...if that act-type generally doesn't have good consequences even if it did have the best possible consequences in an particularly unusual situation (thus making it a right action in that particularly unusual situation).

We may therefore praise both drivers even if we thought that strictly speaking one of them committed a wrong act.

Finally, re blood donations. I don't really believe in such things as supererogatory actions...for me, it's an empty category. Actions conventionally thought of as supererogatory can/should be divided into either right or wrong. I can offer a defense of that, I enjoy the topic of supererogatory acts...but suspect you may prefer to be spared that...

Unknown said...

After posting that, I realized that you may interpret it as failing to address your hypothetical as presented. Not sure.

If so, I should say that I am willing to acknowledge that consequentialism does on some occassions yield counterintuitive results. If we rejected a theory at the sign of any counterintuitive result, then we would have to give up ethical theory all together.

In light of counterintuitive results, sometimes we have to revise theory, sometimes we have to revise our intuitions...

Moral luck is sometimes a weird feature of consequentialism...all I can say is that we shouldn't expect it to be easy to do the right thing or to even know what the right thing is in a given situation. We will often get it wrong.

Severing moral character from right/wrong helps ameliorate this problem I think. Good people sometimes (often?) do wrong things; bad people sometimes do good things...certainly that's not too strange.

unpopular vegan essays said...


The more we discuss this, the more I see that we are not even speaking the same language, nor do we share the same foundational concepts and definitions of morality. It is like to people discussing mathematics who define the integers and operatives differently, then arguing vehemently that 1+1 does or does not equal 2. It’s absurd.

For example, I consider consequences “good or bad”, but actions “right or wrong”. Right actions are ALWAYS praiseworthy, regardless of good or bad consequences. Wrong actions are ALWAYS blameworthy, regardless of good or bad consequences. The child being hit and killed by the car (a consequence) was bad, but the action of drive A was right (desperate attempt to avoid hitting the child).

As to moral theory (or theories), I accept all of them as variously useful tools to guide our intuitions in consistency, etc. I reject each of them as the sole foundation of morality or as a dogmatic program for determining right, wrong, good, bad, praiseworthy, or blameworthy.

At this point, unless something more interesting comes up, I think it is a waste of our time to discuss moral philosophy further. We disagree at the most basic level of definitions and foundations. You are as certain that morality revolves solely around consequences and some form of utilitarianism as I am that morality is highly complex, intuitive, and often requires many different theoretical tools for determining right from wrong, good from bad, and praiseworthy from blameworthy.

Unknown said...

I think you are right that this conversation has been squeezed of for every last drop of value that it could produce....

I am just glad that our different theoretical committments both yield the result that veganism is a moral obligation. This makes veganism immune to an attack on either one of our theoretical does not hinge on the existence of rights or on the primacy of consequences.

unpopular vegan essays said...

On that we can agree. :-) I have considered as many plausible ethical theories as I’ve come across or can think of, and I’ve found veganism required in all. That veganism can be strongly defended “on all fronts” so to speak is a great strength.