Monday, August 3, 2015

Moral Baselines?

Recently there has been a bit of discussion of moral baselines in the animal activism community. In particular, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has argued that activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline. This is in response to Gary Francione, who has long held that veganism is a moral baseline (for example, see this post). So, what's going on?

In short, Francione has maintained that veganism has to be a moral baseline of animal rights movement. Veganism here means more than diet, and is to be broadly understood as removing ourselves from using products that exploit animals, and removing ourselves from directly exploiting animals. For Francione, animal rights movements have to endorse veganism, and as he argues, "Veganism is not, as some welfarists suggest, the “most” that we can do; it’s the least that we can do if we take animal interests seriously." Okay, Hsiung supports veganism, but he does not see it as the baseline. The example he gives is coming across a mob beating a child. In his analogy, veganism is not beating the child, but activism is actually intervening to stop the beating of the child. He argues that we are morally required to stop people from beating the child, and therefore activism becomes the moral baseline. This debate replicates a fairly traditional debate between negative and positive rights. The quick and un-nuanced version of this debate is that negative rights are all the rights you can give someone just by ignoring they exist (you shouldn't kill them, shouldn't steal from them, etc.), positive rights requires you to act on behalf of the other person (you need to feed them if they are starving, give them medical care, etc.). So, who is right, Francione or Hsiung? Neither, because a moral baseline is a strange framing device. Let's spend sometime with that.

First, what is a moral baseline? This is not a phrase I am familiar with in ethics outside of discussions by Francione or inspired by him. As far as I can tell, this phrase is somewhat of an invention of Francione's (if I am wrong, someone please let me know!). It seems that a baseline would be something that has to be done to be moral, and if you did not do this action, you would no longer be moral. But you do not have to do more than this action to be moral. This is rather strange, because it creates degrees of moralness. One can do more than the baseline and, presumably, be more moral, but the person who does only the baseline is still moral. If we take this as the definition of a moral baseline, let us first look at Hsiung's argument. In order to be moral, we must be activists. If we look at the analogy he uses, we can come up with several versions of the analogies where it would be hard to argue that we have to try to stop the beating. What if we are alone, the mob is large and armed, and we have no cellphone, or anyone nearby, and stopping the mob will certainly get ourselves hurt or killed. While tragic, no one would assume the person in that situation had been less than moral for interfering. Let's go past the metaphor. As you read this, animals all over the world are being tortured. And while you can engage in activism, you cannot directly act on behalf of every animal being tortured and killed for humans in the world. So while activism is a moral good, it is hard to understand it as a moral baseline. Okay, what about Francione? While there might be rare cases where humans cannot be vegan (or at least try to be vegan, assuming actual veganism is, in a way, impossible in our society), for the most part it makes sense to say we can and should be vegans. So, can we therefore say that veganism is the baseline. You can do more, but veganism is the least you can do to be moral. However, I think Hsiung is onto something with his argument on some level. Say there is an animal suffering in front of you, and you can, with little to no cost, help the animal. I think we all agree it would be moral to do so. In other words, some sort of positive action on behalf of other animals is probably necessary. The closest moral principle I can think of to think about this is to refer to Kant's famous distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Veganism would be an example of a perfect duty toward other animals, and activism would be an example of an imperfect duty toward other animals. While you cannot perfectly be an activist, it is still required. In other words, even through a Kantian lens, we are not given something like a moral baseline. Indeed, the weirdness of a moral baseline with any system of ethics I can think of is not particularly surprising. And that is because despite what the term may imply, the moral baseline is not a principle of ethics, but a principle of organizing.

I am not sure when Francione introduced the term moral baseline, but as far as I can tell, the first time it appears in one of his books is the 2008 Animals as Persons. In it, he argues:
If we ever hope to shift the paradigm away from the speciesist hierarchy that currently informs our thinking about nonhumans, we must develop a political and social movement in favor of abolishing animal use, with veganism, as both a logical and a moral matter, being the clear baseline of that movement. Many new welfarists, however, reject veganism as a moral baseline. They maintain that it is more "practical" to support welfarist reform and to promote animal uses that are more "humane." But this approach reinforces the prevailing view that animal use is morally acceptable if treatment is "humane," and it makes veganism appear as a radical or extreme response to animal exploitation, which is counterproductive to the goal of abolishing animal use. I have long argued, and continue to believe, that an afternoon spent distributing literature on veganism at a crowded place or giving a lecture on veganism at a local community college is a much better use of time, as a matter of both moral theory and practical strategy, than spending that time working on a campaign to get battery hens some extra space or to require that vivisectors treat animals used in laboratories more "humanely." (p. 17)
Clearly in this passage moral baseline has less to do with normative demands on individual actors, and more to do with animal activist organizations should look like. The passage, for example, does not advance an ethical argument, but instead affirms a few strategic reasons that organizations should focus specifically on vegan education and advocacy. This is fine, I just want it to be clear that what is under discussion is principally a strategic conversation, and not an ethical conversation. We need to have strategic conversations, so I have no problem with this. What is a problem is when what is a strategic question is framed as a moral question, to refuse to have a strategic conversation. When that occurs, it shrinks the sorts of conversations, imaginations, and possibilities we can have as a movement.

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions. I want to end by quoting Erin McKenna's Deweyian inspired The Task of Utopia, which encourages that our important utopian imaginations focus not on "homogeneous perfect end-states, but possible futures-in-process" (12).

She quotes Dewey's "Human Nature and Conduct":
The doctrine of fixed ends not only diverts attention from examination of consequences and the intelligent creation of purpose, but, since means and ends are two ways of regarding the same actuality, it also renders men careless in their inspection of existing conditions. . . . The result is failure. Discouragement follows, assuaged perhaps by the thought that in any case the end is too ideal, too noble and remote, to be capable of realization. We fall back on the consoling thought that our moral ideals are too good for this world and that we must accustom ourselves to a gap between aim and execution?
She contrasts this doctrine of fixed ends with ends-in-view:
Insofar as we are concerned with making a better future, this engagement must involve imagination. "All conscious experience must be imaginative to the degree that the past is used to interpret the present and its bearing toward the future." Envisioning the future as a guide in the present is to achieve that very integrative standpoint which Dewey calls lived experience. Visions of the future help organize and structure our present experiences to some purpose; imagination helps organize experience by providing it with a goal. Dewey calls such goals ends-in-view. Dewey's model of experience is a process model that builds on the premise that human beings are interactive, relational creatures. We are born physically dependent and remain socially interdependent. He further believes that we are finite developmental creatures who must grow and adapt to both our changing physical and changing social environments in order to survive. This means there can be no set goals, no predetermined unchanging goods or ends. Instead, there is a continuous chain of ends-in-view becoming means for new ends-in-view which become means for new ends-in-view. (85-86)

The future of our movement depends upon imagination, shared projects, and vast interdependence. Veganism or activism is a beginning, but not a baseline. It is a process, rather than a foundation, it is a relation, rather than a command.