Potential Vegans

» June 10th, 2012

I was recently having a conversation with a non-vegan friend about animal rights. My friend (a potential vegan, as all non-vegan are) kept coming back to the question of basic intelligence as a parameter by which to fundamentally distinguish humans from other species. By fundamentally distinguish, of course, I mean distinguish in a way that morally justifies the human decision to exploit animals for food, clothing, and entertainment.  This is what my friend does and, as a result, this is what he needed resolved. It was a personal issue.

My retort, as you might guess, was to muddy the species barrier on the issue of intelligence. Not so hard to do. There are numerous non-human species who are more intelligent, by any human measure, than infants or the severely cognitively impaired.*  This point, which in philosophical circles is called the “argument from marginal cases,” seems hard to refute on its own terms.

But my friend’s a smart guy. He wasn’t going to allow the “argument from marginal cases” to rest on its own terms. He wanted me to grapple with the whole notion of “potential.”  The marginal cases tact might very well highlight cases in which primates and parrots are smarter than humans, but in every one of those cases it’s humans who have the potential to be more intelligent (again, by human defined measurements) than the smartest primate or parrot. Call it the “argument from future possibility.”  The parrot will never be able to do calculus. The infant certainly has the potential to do so (although likely not the mentally handicapped – - more on that in a moment).

Now, at this point, I figured that there were two viable paths to take. One, I could just toss out the whole idea of using intelligence to justify moral discrimination of any sort. I could do so on the basis of the aforementioned fact that the definition of intelligence is human-defined. Using intelligence to suss out the moral difference between human and non-human would be like using height to judge my value against a professional basketball player’s. If we were measuring intelligence as the ability to foresee an impending drop in barometric pressure, by contrast, my dog would be the valedictorian every time. So “intelligence” can be rigged any which way.

The other option was to grant (with reservations) the conditional use of human defined intelligence  and try to undermine the “argument from future possibility” tact. That is, undermine the worth of “potential” as an indicator of moral worth. I chose this option, because it seemed to move our discussion forward rather than backtrack it and cause possible frustration and alienation. I was at least engaging my friend, and this was progress.

Initially this seemed a tougher task than I’d thought. What could possibly be wrong with assessing intelligence according to one’s potential? Many humans thrive because there are people who judge their intellectual worth not by their immediate performance but by their potential for improvement. Given my own sad performance during my first two years of college I’m certainly grateful that there were mentors who saw my potential rather than judging me by immediate state of lassitude.  Did I really want to concede that assessing the worth of a being based on future potential was unjustified? Thus my friend hammered away.

Turns out it’s not that hard to dump this concept as a meaningful way to judge the moral worth of anything. For one, as I’ve suggested, the “argument from marginal cases” still applies. People with Alzheimer’s and the severely brain damaged could reasonably be said to lack the potential to develop their intelligence beyond their current status. You could stop the argument here if you wanted to.

Beyond that, though, there’s a problem with the whole idea of potential in and of itself as an assessor of intelligence or moral relevance.  Potential hardly ensures the achievement of it. I have the potential to be the President of the United States, but this doesn’t mean that I should now be granted security detail and access to Air Force One. My potential to reside in the Oval Office, much less learn calculus, by no means ensures its fulfillment. In this sense, a potential right to something is, in effect, not a right at all.

Of course, the potential of my friend to concede these points and explore the potential of veganism remains an open question. But, for him, that’s better than a closed question.


* I initially used the word “handicapped” here and was chastised by several readers for using such outmoded terminology. I wasn’t intending to be insensitive and I apologize if my language was offensive.

8 Responses to Potential Vegans

  1. Of course, one could also argue that viewing non-vegans as potential vegans “hardly ensures the achievement” of their going vegan. Thankfully there are folks like you writing pieces like these to get other vegans thinking about how to talk to others about animal exploitation. Thanks for that.

  2. great argument, james

  3. Why is there there such a need for man to distinguish himself from other animal species as if to find that one magical distinguishing characteristic will provide his moral justification to dominate, control, confine, torture, kill, or eat the others? The one does not follow the other. It is a logical fallacy. When will these great “thinkers” tire of the mental gymnastics and see them for what they are: base justifications to do whatever they please whenever they please simply because they can?

    Perhaps, James, your friend could try a new mental exercise: To see himself as he is seen by the others over whom he feels superior. This short paragraph by Arthur Koestler from “Darkness at Noon” speaks to that idea.

    “There must have been laughter amidst the apes when the Neanderthaler first appeared on earth. The highly civilized apes swung gracefully from bough to bough; the Neanderthaler was uncouth and bound to the earth. The apes, saturated and peaceful, lived in sophisticated playfulness, or caught fleas in philosophic contemplation; the Neanderthaler trampled gloomily through the world, banging around with clubs. The apes looked down on him amusedly from their tree tops and threw nuts at him. Sometimes horror seized them: they ate fruits and tender plants with delicate refinement; the Neanderthaler devoured raw meat, he slaughtered animals and his fellows. He cut down trees which had always stood, moved rocks from their time-hallowed place, transgressed against every law and tradition of the jungle. He was uncouth, cruel, without animal dignity – from the point of view of the highly cultivated apes, a barbaric relapse of history. The last surviving chimpanzees still turn up their noses at the sight of a human being…”

  4. TRF says:

    Hey so I had another thought about the potential argument.
    1) To use the same argument leveled against consumer veganism (which i don’t particularly like, but ill use it anyway), what potential line can be drawn? If you have the potential of the intelligence of an average 5 year old human (some animals have been found to posses this level). Or is it 7? Or is it an average adult (and this not including anyone with an IQ below 100 perhaps). Then it is up to the user of the potential argument to find some line that excludes all nonhumans (which of course is their purpose, and shows it to be a VERY arbitrary line). This line will inevitably exclude humans, since saying all humans have the same potential simply is not realistic.
    2) I really like your idea about potential rights. It also brings into the picture individual vs generalized rights. Are we saying individuals have potential rights? In which case there is the obvious possibility that they do not live up to their potential and thus did not deserve such rights. Or are we to generalize and say all humans should have rights because most humans can reach a certain intelligence level?
    3) An idea i’ve been toying with is that if we take a general potential argument, then its possible to argue, since intelligence is a trait gained over evolutionary time, that most animal species have a potential for more intelligence (species could be getting more social, more intelligent, etc, simply as time goes on). Though this argument relies on a large time scale and a generalized “species-wide” view of potential, it is maybe something to mull over. Though it sounds silly, i think if anyone wants to make potential a widespread ethical yardstick, i think this point must be considered.
    3a) Consider this also, it is obvious that any species, given enough time, could develop increases in average intelligence. At the same time, we surely should argue that robbing a human of their potential intellect is wrong as well. Could it be that in keeping animals in the conditions that we do and killing them early in their life could rob the species of its potential?

    I would love any feedback, cause i just came up with those ideas about this argument.

  5. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I agree, James. “Intelligence” is only a measure of what’s valued in a particular environment, which is subject to change, and should never be the basis of rights.

    Rights should be based on elementary self awareness, not on achievement or the potential for it. Infants, children, and mentally limited adults are entitled to the same fundamental rights as the brightest, most productive individuals among us.

    I’ve also argued with those who contend rights are based on potential, which they claim disqualifies nonhuman animals. As I understand, everyone has a right to develop their potential, but potential is not the basis for rights. Clearly, some individuals do not have the potential to reach average adult “intelligence”, but do indeed have rights, as they should.

  6. CA says:

    It seems right to me that “intelligence” in the indeterminate sense in which it gets used is ambiguous and doesn’t get the opponent what they want (a somewhat bright line that falls on species boundaries).

    On the first tack, the opponent can defend a version of the moral significance of intelligence by appealing to a narrower sense such as capacity for moral reasoning, etc. It seems pretty obvious that intelligence as such is not a measure of moral relevance, but some forms of intelligence might plausibly be held to be so (moral intelligence). For example, your height is not relevant to your inclusion on the basketball team, but your ability to play well might be. Then the opponent just bites the bullet on “marginal cases” and says that they have no rights, but we do have obligations to them.

    But, the retreat to potential I don’t think is all that helpful unless it is supported by some sort of biological quasi-essentialism along the lines of the so-called “Kind argument.” This is a much stronger version of the potentiality argument that relies on the notion that biological kinds have moral significance because typical members of the species have morally relevant capacities. Although it would avoid your response to the potentiality argument, it seems to do so only by invoking a somewhat retrograde conception of biological kind more amenable to creationism than evolution.

    Nathan Nobis has a very nice response to this argument


  7. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I think Nobis was absolutely right to address Cohen’s argument as he presented it, but more recent studies show Cohen’s argument also rests on a false premise — humans are not unique in our capacity for moral judgment, as Cohen claimed. Of course, animal advocates already know this, but it’s good to have science back it up:

    Like us, many other animal species are capable of empathy: http://www.empathogens.com/empathy/animal.html

    And as Martin Hoffman explains in “Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice”, empathy is the foundation of morality.

    I have yet to read Hoffman’s book, so I don’t know if he gives nonhumans enough credit, but I think it’s significant that nonhumans evolved the same foundation for morality that we did. Empathy explains their altruism and their sense of what’s right and wrong within their social groups.

    Dan Cudahy (of Unpopular Vegan Essays), discusses Hoffman’s theory in relation to humans in Part 3 of 4 in his series on moral development: http://unpopularveganessays.blogspot.com/2007/10/development-of-empathy-hoffmans-theory.html

    Here’s an article on empathy in rats:

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