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Suppose that someone says "My position is different from yours as a moral matter". What would that mean?

To put it into "animal rights" terms, let's suppose that someone says that their position differs from Peter Singer's because, unlike Peter Singer, they believe that other animals have a sense of the future as well as thoughts, hopes and dreams about their own lives into the future. Peter Singer, however, is said to believe that most other animals live in the 'eternal present' and don't know or care about whether or not they will be alive next week or next year. As a result, the one person thinks that other animals have a right to life and they say that all that Peter Singer cares about is how well or how badly animals are treated. They say that Peter Singer doesn't really care whether animals die. They say that their own position is, therefore, different as a moral matter. But is it?

No, it is not. 

Just in case a person thinks that it would be wrong to kill someone doesn't necessarily make their position different as a moral matter compared to the position of one who thinks it wouldn't be wrong to kill someone. Here's why.

Two people, viewing the very same set of circumstances, can (and often will) have different opinions about what would be the right thing to do in those circumstances. However, they may share all the same moral principles. For example, they may share the principles that it would be wrong to kill an innocent person, that unjust harm of another is wrong, that whenever possible one ought to help others, and so on. However, as each of them views the circumstances at any particular moment, they have different understandings of the facts of the matter. That is, one may think the people in those circumstances are not innocent, or that harming them would not be unjust, or that it would be impossible to help them. The other may think just the opposite. But, their thinking is not different as a moral matter. Their thinking is different about matters of fact.

So now, back to Peter Singer. Believe it or not, it is possible to have a very well thought-out position about other animals that would not entail believing that other animals have any sort of right to life. A cogent and coherent position on other animals can include such principles as: other animals ought not to be confined and condemned in horrific "factory farms", other animals ought not be made to suffer in order for us to eat them (and it's effectively impossible to eat other animals without making them suffer), other animals care about how they are in the moment even if they have no ideas at all about who they are or what the future holds. Such principles may not, to a person who believes that other animals have a right to life, sound like they are "moral enough".  But they are fully moral principles. They are just based on an understanding of the facts that is different from what someone else might understand. 

Perhaps other animals do have a sense of 'self' and an appreciation of their lives through time. Perhaps it does matter to other animals, in a way that's meaningful for them, that they live to see their grandchildren have children of their own.  I don't know, but, in the case of most other animals, I doubt it. Does that mean that another person, one who thinks that bees "own their honey" is more moral than I am? Of course not. It simply means that they understand the world in a way that's different than the way I understand it. It could be true that I haven't taken the time to try to understand the facts, or it could be that I am ignoring known and undisputed facts, but, if I am well-informed, honest and of goodwill, then it may be that there would be no way to decide whether I had my facts wrong. Certainly, others could have their facts wrong too.

That is, by the way, why it's nonsense to say that "veganism is the moral baseline" of the animal rights movement. There is no such thing as a "moral baseline".  There are moral principles, and there are the facts of the matter. Honest and thoughtful people of goodwill have to put those two things together as best they can in order to work out how to make their way in the world. All this talk about a "moral baseline", whether it is designed to or not, has the effect of elevating oneself at the expense of others. It has the effect of saying "I am better than you are, for I am morally different from you".

Isn't that exactly the sort of thinking that has caused all the trouble in the first place?

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Hi Tim,

Interesting thoughts. I have to read up on Singer (especially his Practical Ethics) because I'm not sure he actually holds to the view ascribed to him by some: that most animals lack self-awareness. My (limited) understanding is that Singer thinks it would be more wrong, typically, to kill a human than an animal because death is more harmful for a fully self-aware being, not that death wouldn't be harmful at all to the animal.

But suppose Singer did hold to the view that most animals are not self-aware at all, and therefore killing them painlessly -- usually a practical impossibility -- is perfectly okay. If Singer's factual understanding is wrong, then I would say his position is different ethically from someone who correctly believed the opposite. Singer would believe that painlessly killing an animal is okay, whereas his critic would believe that painlessly killing an animal is not okay -- hence different moral positions. That their respective positions rest on different factual beliefs doesn't mean those positions aren't different as a moral matter. We should be able to evaluate ethical positions rationally (some are defensible, some not), but take care that in doing so, we're not morally evaluating the person who holds them. And certain ethical questions can be complex, such that there are plausible positions on various sides (answer isn't obvious), and we really can't say for sure which one is really correct.

So I would distinguish between claiming that my position is different than yours as a moral matter and claiming that, because my position is correct, I'm more moral than you. As for saying that "veganism is the moral baseline," I was always puzzled by what that meant. If it means that veganism is the most ethically appropriate position for an individual to hold (barring special circumstances), then I agree. But if it implies that veganism must be the only position promoted -- as opposed to, say, encouraging people to consume less animal products -- then I find that problematic, because that's likely to turn more people off. Ultimately, effective advocacy is what's most helpful to animals.

Hi Spencer,

Thank you for your comment. I take your point about Singer's views, and I didn't mean to (and hope that no one thinks that I did) ascribe views to him that he may or may not hold. I agree with you about the distinction between positions being different as a moral matter vs. the judgmental "I'm more moral than you".  I could have been more clear about the point I was making re: moral difference. I will try again. 

I suppose that if a moral principle was established such that it would be wrong to kill any being who possessed some relevant property A (whatever A happened to be), then if a person killed another and if in so doing that person either willfully ignored or refused to accept uncontroversial evidence of that other's possession of relevant property A, then such a person would be acting immorally (and acting differently from another as a moral matter).  However, if the moral principle in question wasn't established (that is, if that principle was argued for but neither proved nor widely accepted as valid) or if the facts of the matter were controversial (that is, it was an open question as to whether the other did possess property A in the relevant sense), then whether two people would act differently in the same situation doesn't seem like a matter of a moral difference to me.  For example, two people might hold the exact same moral principle "Don't kill those who have self-awareness in the sense X", say, and yet act differently because the facts of the matter as to which beings possess that property are unknown. One of them shouldn't say of the other that she was acting differently as a moral matter, because the facts of the matter aren't settled. It could easily work the other way as well, with people agreeing about the facts of the matter but holding different principles, each of which principles would be reasonable and defensible.

Hi Tim,

In the case where two people agree on moral principle P, but disagree as to whether it applies to situation S because of some factual dispute, it still seems to me that they hold to different moral positions - one believes that doing X in S is wrong, but the other believes that doing X in S is okay. Are you saying that if the factual dispute is easily settled (and one person simply refuses to see the evidence) then we would say that there is a moral difference between the two positions, but if the factual dispute is complicated (reasonable people disagree) then we would say that there is no moral difference between the two positions?

Hi Spencer, 

What I am trying to say (and not doing a very good job of it!) is that it appears to me that in most cases where one person would say "my position is different as a moral matter" what they are saying is not that their position is different to another's with respect to the moral component of each. Rather what they appear to be saying is that, as a moral matter their position is superior to that of another. In the particular case I imagine in the post, there is a moral component to the position of Singer just as there is to the position of the animal rights abolitionist, but it's not correct to say that, just in case the animal rights abolitionist position places more demands upon us, that it is the morally better position. After all, I could hold the position that bacteria ought to have rights and then claim that my position would differ from the abolitionists as a moral matter, and that would be true, but only if others accept that bacteria ought to be included in one's moral consideration in the first place. In the same way then, Singer could respond to the abolitionist "No, your position is not different as a moral matter, because you are mistaking the principles and facts involved and are claiming things as salient that are not."

Spencer Lo said:

Hi Tim,

In the case where two people agree on moral principle P, but disagree as to whether it applies to situation S because of some factual dispute, it still seems to me that they hold to different moral positions - one believes that doing X in S is wrong, but the other believes that doing X in S is okay. Are you saying that if the factual dispute is easily settled (and one person simply refuses to see the evidence) then we would say that there is a moral difference between the two positions, but if the factual dispute is complicated (reasonable people disagree) then we would say that there is no moral difference between the two positions?

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