Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fall 2017 Classes

Intro to Philosophical Ethics - 44370 - HPHI 302G - 01
Syllabus in Word
Syllabus and Notes in Google Docs format
Scheduled Meeting Times
TypeTimeDaysWhereDate RangeSchedule TypeInstructors
Class12:00 pm - 12:50 pmMWFSale Hall 105Aug 16, 2017 - Dec 08, 2017LectureNathan M. Nobis (P)E-mail

Intro to Philosophical Ethics - 44371 - HPHI 302G - 02
Syllabus in Word
Syllabus and Notes in Google Docs format
Scheduled Meeting Times
TypeTimeDaysWhereDate RangeSchedule TypeInstructors
Class1:00 pm - 1:50 pmMWFSale Hall 105Aug 16, 2017 - Dec 08, 2017LectureNathan M. Nobis (P)E-mail

Theory of Knowledge - 45588 - HPHI 303 - 01
Syllabus in Google Docs
Scheduled Meeting Times
TypeTimeDaysWhereDate RangeSchedule TypeInstructors
ClassDIRECTED READINGS: MEET WITH INSTRUCTORSale HallAug 16, 2017 - Dec 08, 2017LectureNathan M. Nobis (P)E-mail

Some teaching documents:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Race-related Controversial Ethical Issues

A quick list of race-related controversial ethical issues; please email me with topics to add or comment below:
  • affirmative action
  • reparations
  • racism
  • racial discrimination
  • racial stereotypes
  • racial solidarity or racial pride
  • racialized sexual/romantic preferences
  • racial profiling
  • implicit bias
  • slavery
  • racially-oriented hate speech and hate crimes
  • mass incarceration
  • policing
  • racial jokes
  • transracialism
  • honoring racist founders and symbols
  • protest
  • self-respect
  • microaggressions
  • cultural appropriation
  • whiteness & white privilege
  • Social Darwinism
  • BLM
  • Intersectionality with sexism (and more)
  • passing & travelling
  • economic injustice
  • redlining 
  • health disparities
  • "language usage" - e.g., certain names being used for certain groups, by people within those groups and people not part of those groups. 
  • representation of race in media and arts

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of Bob Fischer, ed. College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You

Bob Fischer, ed. College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You, Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-0190498658, 659 pages, $69.95. 

Teaching Ethics 
Volume 17, Issue 2, Fall 2017 
Nathan Nobis 
Pages 259-262 
DOI: 10.5840/tej201717250 

For better or worse, people tend to have greater interest in ethical issues that affect them personally. Given that, it’s surprising that it took until now for someone to develop a reader for college students in ethics classes on ethical issues especially relevant to college students. What a great idea! Bob Fischer is to be congratulated on having the idea, for working to bring it to fruition, and seeking input from the online community about how to improve the book and advance the overall project of more engaged and engaging college ethics classes (see “A Surprisingly Overlooked Gap in Philosophy,” Daily Nous blog (September 29, 2016)).

The book sets forth a unique and worthwhile teaching program of focusing on issues especially relevant to college students. “Students,” it should be noted, is understood mostly as late-teenager to early twenty-somethings: traditional college students. Surely there are overlooked ethical issues that uniquely confront adult learners and other non-traditional college students. Instructors should be inspired by this book to find those issues, teach those issues, and share these ideas with Fischer and others so instructors can better meet students where they are at, with ethical issues of more personal concern.

I used the book in an upper-division special-topics course aptly entitled “College Ethics: Moral Issues that Affect You” in the spring of 2017. My course involved about 10 students simply working through many readings of the book and having them discuss, present and write about the readings and the issues of the book. There are 55 readings, each 7-10 pages or so, plus Fischer’s excellent introduction to arguments and moral reasoning divided into these eleven parts:

1.      Sex and Relationships
2.      Abortion
3.      Sexism, Gender and Racism
4.      Affirmative Action in Admissions
5.      Speech and Protest
6.      Drugs and Drinking
7.      Consumer Ethics
8.      Sports
9.      Gaming, Music and Humor
10.  Dishonest, Enhancement and Extra Credit
11.  The Aims of Education.

The complete Table of Contents is available online at Oxford University Press’s site where there are also several online supplements available for instructors, including Fischer’s guidance on how to use the book, various possible orderings of readings, and sample syllabi. Each chapter has Comprehension Questions and Discussion Questions that are well worth assigning. And there’s also an extra page or two very interesting “Case” at the end of each chapter to extend the discussion.

Some of the readings were, of course, far better than others: some are clearer and more direct in their analysis and arguments than others. All the readings, however, raised interesting and important questions. Sometimes the question(s) asked was better than the reading’s answers, especially if the reading was a bit indirect, or long-winded, or had some other vice that I think makes it too hard for many college students to read. The questions that the readings addressed though were so good that I developed a questions-based Table of Contents for the book (see “College Ethics,” Nathan Nobis’s blog (May 16, 2017)).  Asking the questions first before turning to the readings is likely a useful strategy for teaching the book, especially if an instructor’s main goals concern the development of critical thinking skills. These questions can be added to any ethics class to make it more relevant to college students, whether this book is used or not.

After assigning Fischer’s Introduction, we read the chapter by John Corvino on homosexuality (Ch. 1). Some students will find this a more controversial issue than others, but I find it be a good one to practice basic moral reasoning skills, such as making arguments in logically valid form and thinking about the meanings of words. This essay focuses only on two types of arguments about homosexuality: that it is “unnatural” and against the Bible. Students with the skills to evaluate these arguments rationally should be able to extend those skills to many other common arguments on the topic. The other chapters on sexual ethics were interesting and centered on questions that students, and other adults, tend to find very interesting (e.g., When is it wise and unwise to have a sexual relationship with someone? What is it to ‘objectify’ someone and is that wrong, and why? How persistent can one be in seeking a relationship? What personal information of a sexual nature is wrong to share with others? and more). Engaging these questions directly is surely worthwhile.

Next, we reviewed Christopher Pynes’ “Seven Arguments Against Extra Credit” (Ch. 51). Pynes convinced me that most types of extra credit are wrong primarily on the grounds that grades are fair only if they are determined by factors equally accessible to all students in a class, and many forms of extra credit – e.g., attending guest lectures – are not. He also argues that many forms of extra credit are not relevant to the academic content of a class, and so again influence grades on irrelevant grounds.

We then turned to the chapters on abortion (Ch. 9-11). I see how this issue might be different for college students than if the issue were to arise for high school students or independent adults at various ages and stages. Here I was not excited with the readings (too long, too abstract) and instead reverted to my own writings on the topic and standard DIY practice of asking the class, “What reasons are there to think that abortion is prima facie wrong?” and “What reasons are there to think that abortion is prima facie permissible?”, having the class make a list of premises and then using their logical skills to evaluate the arguments.

The section on consumer ethics has a neat paper by Andrew Forcehimes (and a reply by Sadulla Karjiker) that argues that since it’s not wrong to borrow books from the library, many types of books are not wrong to illegally download (Ch. 33, 34): this discussion can be extended to music and movies. There are papers raising the question of whether it’s permissible to buy products that were wrongfully produced, for example, products made in sweatshops (by Lisa Cassidy) and meat and other animal-based food products (by Alastair Norcross) (Ch. 36-39). There are two papers by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Marion Hourdequin discussing what obligations, if any, individual people have to try to help the environment.

A theme of concern for this section is what individuals can and should do regarding big problems where collective action is needed. Many philosophers are interested in this seemingly intractable issue (“Why bother, since your own actions won’t make a difference?”), but I wonder how many college students would be discouraged by it, especially since this concern can be generalized to almost any social issue: why vote, why protest, why do much of anything to try to change society for the better if it’s hard to tell if your actions will make a difference?

            College students, like many other adults, tend to be interested in sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (or whatever music they prefer). I’ve mentioned that the essays on sex and relationships are uniformly interesting. The chapters on drugs, however, were disappointing. The chapter against drugs focused on heroin (Ch. 29), which I suspect is not a drug of choice among college students, and surprisingly gave no thought at all to what, if any, harmful activities the government should imprison people for engaging in. Far better is Michael Huemer’s “America’s Unjust Drug War.” This section also had an informative essay by Caitlin Flanagan, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” that reviews some of the awful things that happen in fraternities and how these organizations are designed to avoid any liabilities for deaths and major injuries (Ch. 32).     Concerning rock-n-roll, there is an interesting chapter (Ch. 44) on morally problematic aspects of singing along to offensive lyrics. There are also interesting papers (Ch. 42, 43) on the ethics of actions done in video games and virtual worlds that would be deeply wrong in the real world. The concerns here are subtle and interesting regarding, not actions, but taking on a mindset and perspective that is evil: fascinating!

To conclude, this is an excellent collection, and the idea motiva­ting the collection is even better, and subject to much potential expansion and development. I again encourage instructors to review the Table of Contents for more of the details on the book’s contents and get a copy of the book to read the chapters that interest them. The book is a good choice for both introductory and more advanced ethics classes. By thinking about ethical issues relevant to students, we hope that that will improve their interest in, and skills in, thinking about ethical issues that they may not think are immediately relevant to them, for example, thinking about the plight of others.  

Nathan Nobis
Associate Professor, Philosophy
Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Xenotransplantation, Subsistence Hunting & the Pursuit of Health: Lessons for Animal Rights-Based Vegan Advocacy

Xenotransplantation, Subsistence Hunting & the Pursuit of Health:
Lessons for Animal Rights-Based Vegan Advocacy

For the Between the Species special issue in honor of Tom Regan. 

Comments welcome on Dropbox [most current version, with better formatting than below] or or here or by email!
Xenotransplantation, Subsistence Hunting & the Pursuit of Health:
Lessons for Animal Rights-Based Vegan Advocacy
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA USA

I argue that, contrary to what Tom Regan suggests, his rights view implies that subsistence hunting is wrong, that is, killing animals for food is wrong even when they are the only available food source, since doing so violates animal rights. We can see that subsistence hunting is wrong on the rights view by seeing why animal experimentation, specifically xenotransplanation, is wrong on the rights view: if it’s wrong to kill an animal to take organs to save a human life, it’s wrong to kill an animal to eat that animal to save a human life or improve human health. I discuss these arguments’ implications for animal rights-based vegan advocacy, insofar as some people claim that they don’t feel their best on vegan diets and so their eating meat is morally justified. I argue that such an attempt to justify consuming animal products fails on Regan’s rights view, but discuss some attempts to morally excuse such violations of animals’ rights. These attempts are inspired by Regan’s attempts at potentially excusing animal rights advocates’ using medications developed using animals.


1.      Introduction

Communities that survive by subsistence hunting probably rarely, if ever, encounter vegan or animal rights advocacy. But a common question asked of vegan advocates is, “What if you were somewhere where there was literally nothing else to eat but animals? Would eating animals be wrong then?”
I suspect that many vegan advocates dodge the question, observing that our finding ourselves in such a situation is very unlikely, and very unlike most of our present circumstances where vegan foods are readily available. They might also urge postponing the question until we found ourselves stuck, say, at the North Pole, when it’s a “live” issue for us. They might also respond that just as we don’t need to decide whether and when human cannibalism is ever morally permissible to know that it’s wrong in ordinary circumstances, we also don’t need to answer this question to know that we should eat vegan when we easily can. And some might respond that, no, it wouldn’t be wrong, in those challenging circumstances to eat animals: perhaps the view would be that “all (or many) bets are off” in such extreme circumstances: ordinary moral rules no longer apply.

I argue, however, to the contrary, that killing animals for food, even in circumstances such as these, is wrong: subsistence hunting is wrong. At least that’s what animal rights advocates, following Tom Regan, should think. I then discuss the impact this finding should have for vegan and animal rights advocacy insofar as some, more than a few, people claim to not feel their best on vegan diets and so argue that their eating meat or other animal products is justified. I show that such an argument fails on Regan’s rights view, but discuss some attempts to morally excuse such violations of animals’ rights, inspired by Regan’s attempts at potentially excusing animal rights advocates when they use medications developed using animals. 

2.      Xenotransplantation and Animal Rights

To see why subsistence hunting – that is, roughly, the killing of animals for food when there is literally nothing else for human beings to eat besides those animals (and we are assuming that cannibalism is not a morally acceptable option or is just not an option, for a potential solitary subsistence hunter) – is wrong, we can consider the animal rights basic perspective on animal experimentation, the using of animals in medical contexts to try to benefit human beings. As Tom Regan reviews in his essay “Empty Cages: Animal Rights and Vivisection”:

Experimental procedures include drowning, suffocating, starving, and burning; blinding animals and destroying their ability to hear; damaging their brains, severing their limbs, crushing their organs; inducing heart attacks, ulcers, paralysis, seizures; forcing them to inhale tobacco smoke, drink alcohol, and ingest various drugs, such as heroin and cocaine (2012, p. 108).

Experimentation clearly harms animals, especially since they are nearly always killed at the end of the experiments.

The animal rights perspective on animal experimentation is, of course, that it is wrong because it violates animals’ rights to their lives and bodies, at least. And it’s wrong even if done “humanely” and with a painless death: healthy, or potentially healthy, animals are done no favors by being killed before their natural times. And it’s wrong even if human beings, even lots of human beings, benefit from it. While it is overall morally worse when a rights violation is institutionalized, commercialized and has widespread social support, animal experimentation equally violates animal rights if done by isolated, “lone wolf” vivisectors. These claims form the animal rights position: so-called “animal welfare” positions deny some or all of this in permitting animal experimentation if certain conditions are met.

According to the animal rights view, for example, animal experimentation in development known as “xenotransplantation,” the “harvesting” or theft of organs from animals such as pigs and primates to transplant to human beings who will likely die without an organ transplant, is wrong (Begley, 2017). This is because it violates the animal’s rights whose organ is taken and dies as a result. While it is very unfortunate when a human person needs a new organ to survive and that organ is not available from a human donor (and no artificial organ is available), that does not justify violating any animal’s rights, just as it would not justify stealing an organ from a human patient in the next room, even if that organ theft victim will survive the loss.

Tom Regan provides a theoretical explanation for why such organ theft, in both human and animal cases, is wrong: doing so treats others as mere things for one’s own personal benefit (Regan 2004/1983). Even if it’s a one-time operation, never to be done again, organ theft treats someone else as a mere resource to be used for the benefit of others. Fundamentally, it’s a disrespectful action that denies the victim’s inherent value. There are limits to what we may do to save our own lives, even when we are “under attack” not by any moral agent or even a moral patient but a disease or our own bodies’ malfunctions, and violating others’ rights is never a morally acceptable response to the attack. For example, if my child is gravely ill, I cannot perform a fatal experiment on my neighbor’s healthy child to even successfully save my own child’s life, especially if the parents don’t consent, and even if they do, since this violates that child’s rights.

3.      Subsistence Hunting

We are now able to see why subsistence hunting is wrong. Animal experimentation of many kinds is wrong since it violates animals’ rights. And if animal experimentation of various kinds is wrong, for reasons like those that Tom Regan develops and defends, then it is also wrong to kill animals for food even when there is nothing else to eat.

If it’s wrong to kill an animal to save your life from a likely fatal medical problem by taking a pig’s or primate’s organ(s) to save your life, then it is also wrong to kill an animal to save your life from starvation. If you can’t permissibly kill a pig to get an organ to transplant to save your life, then surely you can’t permissibly kill the pig to get an organ to eat to save your life. One’s “needs,” even one’s needs for what’s needed for life itself, need not justify violating another’s rights, as Judith Thompson made clear in her famous discussion of abortion (Thompson, 1971): even if someone needs to use another’s kidneys to stay alive, they do not have a right to the use of those kidney’s and nobody violates their rights by not allowing them to use their kidneys: a person’s own right to life is not a right to someone else’s body, even if that body is needed to preserve one’s own life. And a potential patient who receives an animal’s organ can’t fully pass the blame onto the surgeon or the many people who raised the animal before the xenotransplanation, claiming that he or she didn’t personally violate the animal’s rights so has done no wrong: all are engaging in wrongdoing here, says Regan’s rights view.

Thus, subsistence hunting is wrong because it violates animals’ rights: hunters do not have a right to animals’ lives and bodies, even if those animals’ lives and bodies are needed to sustain the hunters’ lives. So, unless communities that depend on subsistence hunting can find something else to eat that doesn’t involve violating rights, they will have to move to stop violating animals’ rights in these ways. Or they would have to perish, it seems, according to Regan’s rights view.
While this may seem harsh, it is perhaps comparable to a country where, for whatever reason, nearly all the citizens are in desperate need of organ transplants or else they will die. A neighboring country could be raided and its citizens’ organs taken, and those people killed in the process. But that would be profoundly wrong, as it would involve massive rights violations. So, unless another solution can be found, it appears that the organ-needy persons would have to perish. This reminds us that respecting rights can be personally demanding and have high personal costs, but this is a simple consequence of the idea of rights: some actions must be done (or must not be done) “though the heavens fall” for individuals or communities. A contrary position, that self-preservation or community-preservation can be justified at literally any cost to others is indefensible. And we can’t forget that, in this case, violating rights would have high personal costs to those whose organs are stolen and their lives taken.

In the only passage from Tom Regan highly applicable to subsistence hunting that I can find, since he appears to only discuss “sport” hunting, he writes this concerning the potential permissibility of killing animals for food:

If it were the case that these [essential] nutrients [that meat provides] were not otherwise available [from non-animal sources], then the case for eating meat, even given the rights view, would be on solid ground. If we were certain to ruin our health by being vegetarians, or run a serious risk of doing so . . and given that the deterioration of our health would deprive us of a greater variety of number of opportunities for satisfaction than those within the range of farms animals, then we would be making ourselves, not the animals, worse-off if we become vegetarians. (Regan 2004/1983, p. 337, emphasis mine).

Regan’s response to this reasoning is just to observe that the factual claim concerning nutrition is false: we don’t need to eat animal products to be healthy. So, he responds that meat-eating could be justified, if the facts were different from what they are, but that they are not.

Regan does not, however, engage the hypothetical “What if?” and underlying moral reasoning behind his argument that eating meat could be permissible, even on the rights view. This is unfortunate since what he says seems to be, at least, inconsistent with the animal rights perspective on xenotransplantation. Consider some comparable potential claims in defense of xenotransplantation:

If we were certain to ruin our health, or lose our lives, by not taking organs from healthy animals, or run a serious risk of doing so . . and given that the deterioration of our health, and loss of our lives, would deprive us of a greater variety of number of opportunities for satisfaction than those within the range of farms animals, then we would be making ourselves, not the animals, worse-off if we refrained from taking organs from animals. If it were the case that these organs from xenotransplantation were not otherwise available, say from human donors or artificial organs, then the case for xenotransplantation, even given the rights view, would be on solid ground.

Rejecting such reasoning is at the core of the rights view: indeed, it distinguishes the rights view from, say, utilitarian and other so called “welfarist” perspectives: animals rights must be respected, even if that makes human persons worse off.

So, what Regan says about eating meat from animals killed and their rights violated – that it would be justified if we would be seriously harmed if we didn’t eat it – appears to be inconsistent with the rights view: what he says, and would say, about vivisection he should also say about potential life-saving meat eating. I do grant that if every human being had to eat meat to survive, as opposed to a few isolated individuals with peculiar biological needs for meat, and that’s the way it always has been, that might make the case feel different: in this world, it would seem unavoidable that we routinely engage in rights violations. This recognition, however, might prompt us to vigorously seek to find some other food sources that don’t involve rights violations, or we might realize that we are making a choice to violate rights that we don’t really have to make, and act accordingly, whatever that might be.

Rights are not absolute, however; Regan acknowledges that they are prima facie in nature and that there can be circumstances where violating rights is justified. Indeed, his comments about the “solid ground” for killing animals for food appears to be an application of a misinterpretation of his own “worse-off principle,” which is meant to provide guidance in cases where we must violate rights:

Special considerations aside, when we must decide to override the rights of the many or the rights of the few who are innocent, and when the harms faced by the few would make them worse-off than any of the many would be if any other option were chosen, then we ought to override the rights of the many (Regan 2004/1983, p. 308)

This principle prioritizes those who are made worse off by an action, whatever their numbers, when we must violate rights: if must either minorly violate the rights of a 1000 people or majorly violate the rights of one person, we should minorly violate the rights of a 1000: the numbers don’t matter.
The problem though, if this principle is supposed to justify any meat-eating, is this: in cases of xenotransplantation, or subsistence hunting, there are alternatives that don’t involve any rights violations, namely, not stealing organs and not killing animals for food. That may, or, for the sake of argument, will result in human deaths. And those human beings might very well be worse off for that than any animals would be, if they were killed. But nobody’s rights were violated since human persons do not have a (positive) right to everything necessary for their lives to continue. And the very points of the rights view is that humans do not have the right to violate the (negative) rights that animals have to their own lives and bodies. So, the worse-off principle does not appear to apply to cases of xenotransplantation, or any typical animal research, or subsistence hunting, contrary to Professor Regan’s remarks, since they are not cases where any rights must be violated. So, subsistence hunting is wrong on the rights view, if vivisection is. And clearly vivisection is wrong on the rights view, so subsistence hunting is also.

4.      Vegan Advocacy

Few readers of this essay, however, likely encounter subsistence hunters or have much, if any, influence over them. We do, however, encounter people who claim to just not feel good, or not feel their best, on vegan diets, or have medical conditions that make eating vegan and staying healthy enough very difficult or impossible. Some vegan advocacy organizations very much acknowledge this concern and so avoid a false message that every person who eats vegan will be healthy and feel their best: sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it is not, and that fact must be acknowledged, respected and thoughtfully engaged (Adams, Breitman, Messina, 2017).

Some people who claim to not feel their best on vegan diets may be not telling the truth, or haven’t tried very hard, or would benefit from skilled nutritional guidance. But it’s surely possible that some people have sincerely tried hard, have sought expert guidance on how to meet their nutritional needs, and yet still do not feel well on a vegan or vegetarian diet. It’s not only possible that there are such persons, there probably really are such persons: they’ve tried their best, but they still don’t feel well on vegan diets. In personal conversation, Tom Regan told me that he knew of a man who he (Regan) sincerely believed just felt very poorly if he did not eat meat.

For people who don’t feel their best if they don’t eat meat or other animal products, is their eating meat justified? And are people justified in raising and killing animals to meet that need? I have argued that subsistence hunting is wrong, if animal experimentation is wrong on the rights view. But if subsistence hunting is wrong, and it’s wrong to kill animals to maintain one’s life (as it would be wrong to xenotransplant and take a healthy animal’s organ to save one’s life), then it would presumably be wrong to kill animals to maintain one’s health, in the vague sense of “feeling good.” If it’s wrong to kill animals to stay alive, which presumably is usually more important than just feeling good, then it’s also wrong to kill animals to feel healthy and one’s best. And so, it appears any “I just don’t feel good if I don’t eat animal products” defense of eating animal products fails, at least on Regan’s rights view.

This is not to minimize or trivialize the importance of feeling good: living with chronic pain, or chronic fatigue, or any other condition that profoundly worsens someone’s quality of life, and perhaps entire worldview, is often be very bad for that person and those around him or her. But that doesn’t seem to justify violating anyone’s rights to try to improve the situation, including violating animal rights, and so it would be wrong to kill animals for food, even if doing so is genuinely necessary to promote or preserve one’s health and feeling well. Individuals who raise and kill any animals on their own (e.g., backyard chickens) to promote their own health would be doing wrong, as would those who raise and kill the animals for pay, and those who pay them to buy and use the products, would also be doing wrong: consumers, producers and sellers are all engaged in wrongdoing. At least that’s what the rights view suggests.

Or does it?

Perhaps not. In Regan’s (2012) essay, “Animal Rights Advocacy and Modern Medicine: The Charge of Hypocrisy,” he considers the charge that animal rights advocates who use prescription drugs, or other medical treatments, developed using animals are “hypocrites” or not insofar as they demand that animals’ rights not be violated, yet benefit from drugs, the development of which involves violating animals’ rights. Regan discusses attempts to, at least, morally excuse animal advocates if they use prescription medications and thereby in some way support the violation of animal rights. Regan seems to be trying to show that it is understandable or excusable to do so, an admittedly vague category of evaluation, perhaps that is indeed morally permissible to do so, but this is not entirely clear. Regan acknowledges that the issue is complex, and his discussion is rich and full of insight and wisdom. And it is applicable to the issues at hand.

Regan does not advocate that animal advocates simply let themselves die to avoid supporting drug companies who violate animal rights in the development of pharmaceuticals. Presumably, although he does not discuss the issues of this paper, he would also not encourage animal advocates to starve themselves to death to avoid supporting any killing of animals for food.

It should be made immediately clear, however, that, at least in industrialized countries, the potential of someone dying because they refuse to eat anything that directly involves violating animals’ rights is far more unrealistic than anyone dying from not supporting the pharmaceutical industry. This is because it seems likely biologically impossible that anyone must eat recently killed conscious, sentient, “subject of a life” animals to stay alive and healthy. It’s hard to believe that such a person couldn’t survive and be healthy eating bivalves or other non-conscious animals, insects, the eggs laid by chickens who live good lives, or roadkill, or animals who recently died of natural causes, among other options. So, an “eat-animals-or-die” case is unlikely in most geographical contexts compared to a “use-animal-tested-medications-or-die” case, especially in locations where a variety of foods are available: there will nearly always be a way to avoid death without eating what can be called “whole” animals. Anyone who lives by subsistence hunting, however, likely will not have these food options though: they would have to eat whole animals or perish unless they are unwilling to move to a vegan-friendly location (or become cannibals, again, presumably a morally impermissible option).

With these qualifications in mind, let’s see if what Regan argues about the pharmaceutical case can be extended to anyone who must eat whole animals or else perish or, more realistically to our culture, be unhealthy or not feel their best.

Regan discusses several proposals to justify animal advocates’ using pharmaceuticals developed using animals, and criticizes many of them. His tentatively and cautiously presented final proposal is that it can be permissible, or at least excusable, for animal rights advocates to take medications developed with the use of animals because the animal experimentation involved in the drug development is accidental to the development of the drug, not essential: the animal use did not causally contribute to the drug’s development; indeed, given misleading results from animal research, the drug may have been developed in spite of any results from animal research (287-288). This type of justification could be used to try to explain why it’s not wrong to continue to use buildings made from slave labor – the buildings were in fact made by slaves, but they could have been made without them – and why using items made by Nazis using the bodies of their victims is wrong – those items could not have been made without brutal, inhumane violations of rights. So Regan’s motivating principle has general plausibility, and so perhaps justifies animal advocates taking prescription drugs, even though animals’ rights are violated in their development.  

Can this type of justification be could applied to cases where someone must eat whole animals to stay alive or be healthy or feel their best? It seems to me like this would be a stretch. One could say that it is merely accidental that the needed nutrients, in the exact form and combination that meat provides, are found only in the body of a subject-of-a-life animal, not essential, and so it’s not wrong to kill these animals to eat them. This claim could be supported by observations about development of “clean” meat, that is, meat developed apart from any animal’s body, to try to argue that meat and animals are indeed separable: you can have meat without animals. To me, however, this is an implausible stretch of the principle since, in current actual cases, (a) the nutrients and the body of the animal and (b) the life of the animal are basically inseparable. This is perhaps analogous to a murderer claiming that the experience of murdering that he or she seeks are separable from the effects on the victim, that there is merely an accidental connection between the two, and so murder is not wrong. This is clearly an awful and absurd attempt justifying murder. So it does not seem that the reasoning that Regan uses to justify animal advocates using pharmaceuticals can be extended to the eating of animals, even when necessary to preserve one’s life or health: a drug and the animal experimentation that was involved in development of that drug are separable in a way that an animal and his or her consumed body are not: the latter is something a constitutional relation, not a causal or temporal relation that might be present in drug development.

Remember though that Regan does not discuss issue of eating animals for health, as far as I know. And, again, we can only suspect that he would argue that it can be permissible for animal advocates to eat animal products if it were genuinely necessary for them to be healthy and feel good enough and that they are not hypocrites for doing so. Presumably, he wouldn’t argue that anyone in such circumstances must just die or be very ill when eating whole animal products would prevent that.

One of the arguments that Regan dismisses in favor of animal advocates using pharmaceuticals is that if they are dead or ill then they cannot effectively advocate for animal rights (285-287). So, to continue advocating for the respect of animal rights, perhaps it can be permissible to partake in some practices that violate animal rights. Regan’s reservation about this argument is that some means to promote, and even secure, animal rights would be wrong: for example, Regan states that torturing animal researchers’ children to end animal research would be wrong. This argument in favor of using pharmaceuticals doesn’t seem to recognize any moral constraints in seeking animal rights: Regan concludes that “what is effective might well be morally wrong” (287), and this argument doesn’t recognize that and so is faulty.

In reply, perhaps the argument could be augmented with a constraint that if and only if the supported rights violation is not worse than the rights violation that might be prevented in the long run by the initial supported rights violation, or is a very similar rights violation, then supporting that rights violation is permissible. So, for example, someone’s supporting animal research, and the animal rights violations involved, is permissible if doing so will enable that someone to help lessen these types of violations of animal rights. Torturing children, however, would not be permissible, even if doing so would lessen violations of animal rights, as a worse type of rights violation. This response, however, is subject to many concerns: it seems to involve “using” one group to benefit another, which rights are supposed to make wrong, and it introduces complications concerning how to compare the relative badness of different rights violations. And there’s the question of how much and what kinds of advocacy for animals must be done to make it permissible to benefit from their rights violations. So this is not a trouble-free amendment to the argument: hard questions remain.

But rejecting it, or something like it, is problematic also. It is hard to believe that any animal advocates dying for the sake of animal rights in any way helps the cause of animal rights, at least at present. Indeed, anyone dying for animal rights is a setback, both in terms of both the attractiveness of the movement to outsiders, potential advocates, and in terms of the numbers and morale of current advocates. So while there surely are limits to what can be done to promote animal rights, perhaps supporting some violations of animal rights can be permissible if and only if those rights violations are not worse than the animal rights violations we are seeking to end, given broader animal-rights related goals, and the recipient of the benefits continues to advocate for animal rights.  

Regan emphasizes that the context of our decisions is not our own creation: we are thrown into a world full of massive rights violations, animal and human, and must make the most of it to try to lessen these rights violations and work for the respectful treatment of all. Since the context of our decision is not self-created, and certainly not created with a peaceable kingdom in mind, perhaps acts of self-preservation are excusable and understandable, even if they involve some participation in rights violations, if doing so is more likely to increase the respect for animal rights than not, in the long run.

Finally, although Regan does not discuss this, this is perhaps a situation where the “impotence of the individual” might make a positive difference for animal advocates: in most cases, if an animal advocate were to eat meat, or other animal products, it is unlikely that purchase and consumption will cause more animals rights to be violated. If so, then eating animal products might be a kind of “free riding” that does not cause more rights violations but allows for some human being to be in a better position to advocate for animals. The same might be said about pharmaceuticals developed using drugs, although this defense is harder to apply to xenotransplantation: if a specific animal is killed for an organ for a specific individual then an individual’s actions might plausibly make a causal difference to the fate of that animal. This justification, however, is problematic in that it opens the door to anyone justify their behavioral indifference to animal rights because, they insist, their actions won’t make a positive difference for animals. We surely want to try to resist that type of reasoning about all sorts of social justice issues. But, on the other hand, it does seem to simply be true that individual actions often don’t obviously make the concrete differences we hope they would: that truth should likely not be denied and perhaps it sometimes makes a difference to, at least, how confident we should be about the morality of our actions.

In sum, although it is hard to explain why, it appears then that, perhaps, some actions that involve violating animals’ rights, such as human beings’ using drugs developed using animals and eating animal products when they genuinely must do so for good or better health (or life), might be morally permissible, or at least excusable, if doing so will better enable the person to advocate for animal rights and the rights violations we benefit from are not worse than those we try to seek to lessen or eliminate. This proposal might likely apply to many more mundane actions that invariably results in harms to animals, such as driving and common ways of growing and harvesting crops, at least. Arguably these literally avoidable actions violate animal rights, and perhaps the proposal developed above helps justify them.

Whether these animal rights violations could be justified only if they better enable to someone to advocate for animals is an interesting question: if ‘yes,’ that answer might, surprisingly, result in it being permissible for animal advocates to occasionally support violating animals’ rights, but wrong for foes of animals to do the same action. That is an interesting result, and surely one that it would be hard to use to develop policy, as well as a bit paradoxical: animal advocates can sometimes support animal rights violations, since they will go on to promote animal rights, but those indifferent to animal rights, and oppose animal rights, cannot? Promoting such a view to the public would surely not work, so perhaps everyone should be viewed as a potential animal advocate and treated as if they were an actual advocate (a problematic proposal in itself, insofar as rarely should potential things of a kind be treated as actual things of that kind).

5.      Conclusion

Vegan advocates are often asked What if you were somewhere where there was literally nothing else to eat but animals? Would eating animals be wrong then?” The basic options for response are to either dodge the question, answer ‘yes’, or answer ‘no.’ I have argued that the ‘no’ answer, that it would be permissible to eat animals in these circumstances is contrary to at least Regan’s animal rights theory: in particular, that reasoning would justify xenotransplantation, which is clearly wrong on the rights view. I have argued that the ‘yes’ answer faces challenges but that there may be complicated, though plausible, ways to at least morally excuse people who support some violations of animals’ rights, if their doing so better enables them to advocate for animals. Perhaps the best and wisest response, for most people, in most contexts, is to dodge the question, as perhaps Professor Regan did, so that none of us get distracted from the core, immediate, and pressing questions and challenges about animal rights that confront each of us as we are and where we are, now.


For helpful comments, I am grateful to Robert Bass, Rick Bogle, Bob Fischer, Rupert McCallum and Josh Milburn and two anonymous reviewers for this journal.

After developing the main arguments for this paper, I read Jason Hanna’s excellent paper, “A Moral License to Kill? Animal Rights and Hunting,” in Mylan Engel and Gary Comstock, eds., The Moral Rights of Animals (Lexington Books, 2016). He also argues that the animal rights explanation for the wrongness of animal experimentation suggests the wrongness of subsistence hunting. Hanna’s paper offers some arguments that are similar to mine, but for generally overall different purposes, and readers are very much encouraged to read his very insightful paper.

I also observe that Mark Rowlands in Animals Like Us argues that subsistence hunting is permissible, since it satisfies “vital” human interest (161), but that animal experimentation never is, even though it could occasionally satisfy a “vital” human interest (144-150). His arguments are subject to the critique above.

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