Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Argument from "Marginal Cases"

The argument for animal rights and veganism that convinced me was the unfortunately named "Argument from Marginal Cases." The argument essentially follows from the recognition of speciesism, which I discussed in another post. Basically, the argument goes as follows:

There are many basic rights that we believe are owed to all human beings, such as the right not to be killed, tortured, or used as property. If we're not going to be speciesist, we have to consider other animals as potential holders of these rights. Some people suggest that humans possess certain mental capacities that justify the recognition of these rights. Non-human animals are supposed to lack these mental capacities and hence lack the correlated rights. However, for any set of capacities that someone can deem important, there will be some "marginal" group of humans who lack these capacities (the cognitively impaired) to whom we still grant basic rights. Therefore, we have no rational basis for denying basic rights to non-humans.

I believe this argument is sound (though perhaps could be put more clearly.) There are a few possible responses to it, all of which I find rather ad hoc and hardly plausible. However, one might have observed that I do not in general use this form of argument to advocate for animal rights veganism, despite its incredible impact on my own thinking. It might even seem disingenuous of me that I offer other arguments instead of the one argument that actually convinced me of the existence of animal rights. Despite this worry, there are several reasons I do not rely on this form of argument.

The first reason is that some people might find it offensive towards the disabled, in comparing them to non-humans. I do not, in fact, think it is an offensive argument, because it intends to raise the status of non-humans rather than denigrate the disabled. It even focuses on the strengths of our convictions about the rights of the disabled to derive the force of the argument. Nevertheless, advocacy should avoid appearing offensive if possible, as offense polarizes otherwise helpful discussions.

A second reason for avoiding this argument is that it opens up the possibility for people to deny that we have obligations to the mentally disabled. I find such a suggestion indefensible, but I've heard versions of it articulated. For me personally, it's not a profitable line of dialogue to pursue, because I usually get too upset and defensive at the suggestion to carry on the conversation. I know some people who do think this way, and I'd prefer to not encourage this line of thought.

Relatedly, without relying on the intuitions about our obligations to the cognitively impaired, I am able to bolster support for such obligations while also arguing in favor of animal rights. This makes my advocacy and writing (hopefully)doubly effective, especially because I don't think our society focuses enough on our obligations to the disabled, and as I said, not everyone thinks these obligations are particularly strong. If I can advocate for animal rights and disability rights simultaneously, all the better.

Of course, I don't avoid the basic features of the argument altogether. Because even if I can convince you that animals have rights regardless of their capabilities, that obviously relates to the rights of humans whose capabilities vary from the "norm." There's no way of discussing animal rights and getting away from discussion of "marginal cases," which is probably how it should be. Which leads to a philosophical benefit of discussing animal rights without an explicit appeal to this argument, which is that if other forms of argument can lead to the same conclusion, that conclusion is further supported(and better understood.) As a side effect, these discussions can be more philosophically interesting, as well.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Cody! I always look forward to reading this blog.

    This was one of the most compelling arguments for me, as well. And I share your concerns about deploying it in arguments with carnists. (As an aside - I'd love to hear your take on the utility of the word 'carnist'!)

    This is one of the most pervasive walls I come up against when discussing veganism in activist circles. Whenever I try to draw on historical oppressions to describe the current plight of non-human animals, I hear the same response: to compare these humans to animals is to replicate the old hierarchy, and thus to demean and trivialize their experiences. This argument relies on a speciesist premise, but it comes from such a powerfully emotional place that I often avoid bringing up the dreaded comparison.

    I think part of the problem is the identity politics of these kinds of circumstances. Invariably I'm the white cis man debating with someone occupying a marginalized identity. Insisting on the relevance of their history to an analysis of animal oppression in this context can erase/colonize their experience, replicating a problematic Euro approach to debate. But from that thought it would seem to follow that it's only okay to bring this kind of thing up in debates with white folks, which is a much more troublesome thought.

    Oppression is intersectional, and the same forces that allow(ed) humans with power to exploit and dominate humans without are used by humans against non-human animals, every day. As soon as we include animals within the scope of our ethical thinking, all the dreaded comparisons have immediate and compelling relevance. Slavery, the holocaust, mass incarceration, abuse of the institutionalized - all are relevant to an analysis of contemporary human/non-human relationships.

    Maybe that's how we get at it. Instead of insisting that animals are like mentally disabled people, and thus should be included in our moral universe, we should insist that animals are like all of us. And then we can get at the comparisons from the vantage point of the exploiter, not the exploited.

    That may have been a bit rambly. But I think there's a nugget of truth somewhere in there. Let me know what you think!

  2. Thanks for your comments. I think this is actually a pretty big topic, and plan to write more on these ideas, but there are a few things I'd like to respond to in what you said.

    First, I tend to think "carnist" as a label tends to confuse people, and people often dislike being labelled with words they're unfamiliar with. I'd sooner use "speciesist" or "non-vegan." I've known many people who openly admit to being speciesist, and just see it as unproblematic. That leaves plenty of room for discussion framed around the rationality of species bias. Non-vegan is only problematic as a label when you're discussing animal rights with someone who claims to be vegan for health reasons, but is happy to exploit non-humans for non-dietary purposes.

    Along some of the same lines as in the initial post, I avoid direct analogies to the forms of oppression (such as slavery or the holocaust) with non-vegans. Rather, I try to focus on how speciesism has the same structure as other forms of pernicious prejudice. As you say, if they start to put the pieces together about how speciesism is analogous to racism, etc., the rest of the analogies fall into place. But it's better to hope that they come to realize that themselves than to use it as a tool for advocacy, because I think people use that as an excuse to stop engaging in the substance of the discussion.

    I think I disagree on insisting that animals are like all of us, because people will then either 1. insist that they are not like us or 2. decide that what matters about animals is how like us they are (i.e. give moral priority to the great apes).

    Instead, I try to argue that against the species border as a morally salient feature. Almost invariably, people will say things like "But animals are stupid" or "But they don't have obligations towards us," which is when the correct reply is that many humans vary in intelligence and ability to fulfill moral obligations, but this doesn't alter their fundamental rights.

    As you can see, I don't completely avoid the argument from marginal cases. I certainly brush up against it. But again, I think it's better something that people come to realize on their own, because then it doesn't immediately illicit outrage as a defense mechanism.

    The other route to go is to try to appeal to people's common sense intuitions about our obligations to animals, and try to show that they logically entail veganism. Gary Francione has effectively done this in an op-ed called something like "We Are All Michael Vick." One downside to this approach is that it lacks the resources to oppose medical experimentation on animals, but it avoids many of the pitfalls we've been discussing.

  3. Also, Francione has also argued that feminism entails veganism, because feminists should object to the rape and sexual exploitation of females (which of course all animal use requires) regardless of speciesism. I'm curious about how effective an argument this is, because intuitively I'd imagine that feminists would be more open to these types of arguments. On the other hand, I'm sure there'd be many who would be offended by the comparison of women to cattle. The trick, I suppose, would be to get them to see that the argument is not a comparison. It's simply a rational extension of what they already believe.