Ask a Philosopher, Part Five: False Dichotomies

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Five: False Dichotomies

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philosopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He has kindly agreed to allow us to pester him with questions relevant to veganism. This week, I asked him to compare the utility of deontological approaches and the logic of utilitarianism.

PMF: There’s a fundamental division within vegan philosophy between, on the one hand, advocates who argue veganism is a strategy for the reduction of suffering (a well-known example is the writer Peter Singer*) and are sometimes called utilitarians.

On the other hand some advocates argue that veganism is a response to the fundamental ‘rights’ of animals that prescribe a set of rules about how we should treat them (a well known example is the writer Tom Regan*). They can be thought of as deontological.

Is there a moral or philosophical reason why one of these approaches is better or more useful than the other? Is there a better way of thinking about vegan advocacy?


RJ: So, here we are at the basic moral philosophies again: utilitarian and fundamental rights. As explained earlier, both of these approaches are problematic: one claims that individuals ‘simply deserve’ rights and the other claims that suffering ‘simply is’ what morality should be concerned with. The ‘simply is’ in each case is nothing more than an assumption. Neither, in a rational sense, is more accurate than the other as it is the same positing of an ‘assumption’ as a legitimate rational truth. The world doesn’t work this way.

This isn’t to say Singer, Regan or anyone else who has subscribed to these assumptive types of theories can provide us with nothing. They can still provide useful arguments and/or evidence which we can use within a sounder framework. Regan and Singer had valuable back-and-forths in the 80’s (valuable to me in my academic ivory tower, anyway), whilst providing some useful intellectual arguments about the basic subject of animal exploitation. Whilst Francione’s legal knowledge has given us a great deal in terms of analysing things like welfare regulation, or even the exact legal evidence of why certain welfare regulation changes were not positive for the animals. Animal rights philosophers and writers have provided a great deal, without having previously championed a rational view of ethics.

As to whether one of them is more useful than the other? Not necessarily, no. They each have provided useful aspects to further our understanding. Neither is a solid framework for making further decisions. In my personal opinion, I’ve often theorised that Singer’s theory is better by virtue that he is at least aiming toward reality by trying to inflate the important, very real experience of suffering. However I always remind myself that he’s still making that same meta-physical assumption that it’s intuitively right that suffering is the most important thing. A better way of thinking about vegan advocacy is simply exposing your opinions to reality and evidence, rather than trying to fit your dilemmas into a philosophical, yet rationally sparse, theory.

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