I’ve never understood the argument occasionally advanced that having moral concern for animals makes a person “anti-human.” Even considering the cases where an animal’s significant interests directly conflict with human significant interests, if one were to conclude that the animals interests trumped the human interest this would not it seems provide evidence for some diminished concern for human beings, never mind antipathy towards human beings in general. Sometimes a variation of the argument is offered that claims that concern with “animal rights” or animal interests necessarily takes away from one’s concern for human rights. I’ve never found that persuasively argued either.
We have much weaker and sillier arguments flying around the public discourse space prompted by the Michael Vick case. Here’s one of Tenessee’s representatives weighing in:

But does anyone besides me see the hypocrisy of some on the left who go nuts about Michael Vick and the whole dog fighting thing and yet are the same people who don’t care about the loss of human life caused by illegal aliens or are the same people who fight for the right to kill unborn babies?

I hear the battle cry of: “It is my body, it is my property, I can do with it what I want” from the pro aborts, but the opposite cry from the same person against a person whose property is a dog. Do they respect the life of a dog more then they respect the life of a human?

The sport’s savants weigh in as well, for example, here.

The larger point is that, as much as we’re tempted to react to the federal indictment of Vick as though it contained the most heinous accusations against a football player since O.J. Simpson’s, there’s a whole lot of hypocrisy here.

For one thing, animals are put to death on a continuous basis, as I was just telling one of my fellow pet-lovers at a neighborhood barbecue while wiping away the hamburger grease that had dripped onto my suede Pumas.

It also must be noted – and I am not defending the sick behavior of anyone whom a jury decides has committed an offense such as electrocuting a pit bull – that there are NFL players who’ve been charged with having committed deplorable crimes against actual human beings. Some of them even have been convicted, yet most of us manage to let it go when they do good things for the home team or emerge as value picks in the fantasy draft.

It’s worth considering what an argument that purports to demonstrate hypocrisy must accomplish. In the first example above the argument would have to show that “some on the left” (s.o.t.l.) are applying the same moral principle in a discriminatory way. For example, if s.o.t.l believed that what Michael Vick apparently did to dogs is wrong because killing mammals is wrong then perhaps granting that a fetus or the victims of the murderous illegal aliens are mammals, if they condone those latter deaths they are hypocrites. But there are obvious and well articulated differences between the cases being considered that s.o.t.l. can appeal to.
The second case is weirder. He seems to be suggesting that we ought to be less upset about Michael Vick because in the past people who have committed other crimes have been forgiven by the fans. Whether the moral fiber of the football fan is the appropriate test is a difficult question. But, nevertheless, even granting the premises of this argument it isn’t clear that “hypocrisy” has anything to do with it.

The accusation of hypocrisy in moral argument is often a cheap rhetorical ploy, functioning somewhere in the neighborhood of the ad hominem fallacy. By attacking the consistency of the moral critic you try to undermine the particular position they are advancing. At the same time, these sorts of arguments based on similarities between cases are theoretically central to moral argument. The burden of the argument lies with the person who claims that cases are the same or similar in the relevant morally significant ways. This would be why Peter Singer’s argument from the first chapter of Animal Liberation could be used to demonstrate hypocrisy (speciesism), while the first quote above fails to do so.

Of course, there is one point that I’ll agree with: it isn’t clear why there is a moral difference between killing an animal for entertainment and killing an animal for gustatory pleasure.

6 thoughts on “Hypocrites!!!”

  1. I think the comparison here to an ad hominem is insightful.

    Regarding the particular example, though, I was curious what “obvious and well articulated differences” you had in mind. Is the moral principle in play not, “it is wrong to kill mammals,” but something more akin to “it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering or death to autonomous mammals”?

    Autonomy here seems slightly contrived, to me. But then, I’m prone to levy hypocrisy charges the other way: if you’re going to be anti-abortion, you should be vegan too. (Fortunately, my amorality saves me from the inconvenience of both of those predicates. Nihilist? Maybe. But at least I’m no hypocrite.)

  2. The writer with the beef grease is not guilty of hypocrisy because he implicitly acknowledges his moral failure.

    However, the reasonable person would consider dogfighting, factory farming/meat-eating, and crimes against other human beings, to be morally wrong. The reasonable person is exempt from the charge of hypocrisy from the grease-dripping shrug of the self-professed transgressor, since his only refuge is to show everyone that they are just like him, that in some way they, too, are morally repugnant.

    Beef-eater has no point to make against the consistent moralist.

  3. I was thinking, when I hastily wrote that, that the contexts and purposes of the actions make them different in morally significant ways. In the Michael Vick case we are presumably talking about causing an animal to suffer because the suffering, or at least the danger of suffering in the struggle, gives Michael Vick and his friends pleasure. I find it unlikely that such a purpose motivates termination of pregnancies. I was thinking that the s.o.t.l would probably want a more contextual moral principle than (All killing of mammals is wrong).

    Following your lead in tightening the principle, we could consider both Singer and Regan’s views as typical. In both cases the capacity that makes humans and animals morally considerable (sentience or “subject of a life”) would differentiate between the killing of an adult dog and the killing of a pre-sentient fetus (prior to 28 week in all likelihood). The former would be morally significant the latter not.

  4. I should admit that the first link is a little easy. I’ll add two more quotes from the representative:

    “How many dogs have been killed in dog fights versus how many babies have been killed in abortion clinics or by illegal immigrants. I bet dog deaths pale by comparison. But what do we see on TV every day on about every news channel?”

    Baby killing illegal immigrants???????

    “Dog fighting is cruel and inhumane. But if Vick could have figured out a way to pit two unborn babies against each other in a fight to the death, maybe we’d outlaw killing children as quickly as we rushed to enhance penalties for crimes involving our pets.”

    Two fetuses enter, one fetus leaves!!

    I’m not sure the Onion could do better than this!

  5. Hypocrisy is like a swiss-army knife mode of ad hominem attacks for some pro-lifers (s.p.l.). Any moral objection from s.o.t.l. can be met with cries of, “How dare you trifle with such a small matter when right now systematic murder continues in your name?”

  6. I love “s.o.t.l” as an acronym. SOTL argue that (fill in straw man). There you have it.

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