I talk a lot about the argument from marginal cases on this blog, because it’s the moral equation that glues logical veganism together. This argument is the bridge that makes it possible to think of humans and other animals as morally equivalent. It’s what allows vegans to say “what if you did that to humans?” every time you talk about some aspect of animal use that you don’t think is so bad. If you’ve ever heard a vegan say something about how if you eat animals, you should be cool with eating babies, lurking in the background is the argument from marginal cases.
Welp, time for yet another argument from marginal cases summary. (Skip this paragraph if you already know what it is.) The argument from marginal cases is an attempt to thwart the meat eater desire to draw a solid line between humans and other animals, that line which permits people to think it’s okay to kill and eat other animals even though they wouldn’t do the same thing to humans. The main philosophical excuses meat eaters make for this line is that other animals operate on a basic cognitive level that often doesn’t go much beyond survival, these animals aren’t living out a story because they can’t really make plans or have ambitious goals, they can’t function as equal members in our society, and they cannot enter moral exchanges with us. To this, marginal-case-thumping vegans say, “But we give rights to babies and the severely mentally impaired, and they operate on a basic cognitive level, don’t have ambitions, can’t function as equal members in our society and cannot enter moral exchanges with us. Therefore, not giving rights to animals too is speciesist.”
I don’t think the argument from marginal cases works overall (I explain why in this entry, and I’ll take another swing at it in my next entry), but I believe the example of babies is especially problematic. My reasoning for this is somewhat obscure and only applies to a subset of vegan beliefs, but unless you don’t like nitpicky minutiae for some reason, I’m sure you want to know it anyway.
In my entry “The Moral Schizophrenia of Farm Sanctuaries,” I wrote this aside:
What Francione objects to in domesticated animal life is that it constitutes a perpetual parasitical babyhood. The problem he sees with domesticated animals — unlike self-supporting humans and wild animals — is that they cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed without no help from nobody. Essentially, domesticated animals are in the same position as the human “marginal cases” (babies, the comatose and the severely mentally impaired) that vegans rely on to give animals rights. A side effect of Francione’s opposition to domesticated animal lives, then, is to also condemn the lives of human marginal cases as worse than no lives at all. Well, baby life can be justified, he insists, because the baby has potential to grow up and take care of itself. (This is an “argument from potential,” which some other vegans reject for the sake of strengthening the argument from marginal cases.) In other words, Francione believes that temporary parasitism is okay. But since all life is temporary, that means the parasitism of domesticated animals is temporary too, which would seem to justify bringing domesticated animals into the world as well. More important, Francione’s stance on the inherent harm of domesticated animal life implies that the lives of severely mentally impaired adults cannot be justified, and such people should not be perpetuated. Since vegans cite the value of severely mentally impaired human lives as proof of the value of animal lives, this might cause more problems with the argument from marginal cases, but I’ll worry about that another day. [Emphasis mine, obviously. But me of the present, not me when I originally wrote this entry.]
It’s another day, so I’ll worry about it.
Some but not all vegans believe that domesticated animals should not be bred into existence — even if they won’t be killed for food — because it is wrong to create beings who are helpless and dependent on humans for their survival. Francione is not alone in this opposition, but it runs into an immediate problem. Babies are even more helpless and dependent on humans than domesticated animals are, as are severely cognitively impaired humans. If we shouldn’t allow dogs to breed (even if we love them and treat them well and let them live out their lives to the end) because their lives will be slavish and reliant on humans for sustenance and shelter, and thus rubbish and not worth living, how can vegans justify bringing babies into existence?
Vegans who cite the standard argument from marginal cases are not allowed to say “because babies will grow up and stop being utterly dependent on their parents,” since that would mean vegans can treat babies as special because of how they will change in the future, something vegans don’t let omnivores do when they try to say that we give babies rights because they will grow up to be moral agents.
And what about cognitively impaired humans who will never grow out of their dependence? From the non-speciesist vegan perspective, that’s no different than bringing domesticated animals into the world.
Another blow is that if we’re not allowed to consider the future development of beings while assigning rights, then we can’t be against domesticated animal breeding or wild animal breeding (which could be annoying for vegans who want to stop the spread of destructive species through birth control). The reason for this is that we would not be able to consider the consequence of domesticated animals having sex — that a dependent baby animal is born. We could only look at the action in this moment, which is two animals having sex, something that vegans do not object to.
Good thing pickles are vegan!
Is there way out of this? Yes, five of them that I can see, but they each require some ideological compromises that many vegans won’t want to make.
1. Be against domesticated animal breeding, as well as the creation of all new sentient life, including humans.
The simplest solution is for vegans who are against domestic animal breeding to become anti-natalists and turn against human breeding as it begets slavish babies who are dependent on us for shelter and sustenance. But they have to make sure they accept the argument from potential here, since rejecting it means they cannot oppose the actions that lead to babies, unless they devise a moral reason to oppose sex itself. That’s not a big deal, though. Just accept that future consequences of actions do matter, and then you can be against all procreative sex. This solves the marginal cases problem. And every other problem in the world, actually, since no one would exist to experience problems.
2. Be against domesticated animal breeding, but okay with human breeding. To make this work, take babies out of the argument from marginal cases and call for the abortion of all fetuses that are going to become cognitively impaired humans.
For vegans who don’t want to advocate the end the human race, another answer is for them to accept the argument from potential — that babies are special because they will grow up into non-dependent moral agents — and then take babies out of the argument from marginal cases. That still leaves the mentally impaired who have no potential to grow out of their severe cognitive disability safely in place as a force requiring veganism.
However, because these vegans are against animal domestication for propagating creatures who are perpetual dependents, they also have to be against the creation of severely cognitively impaired humans who are perpetual dependents, since a non-speciesist would see that as no different from breeding domesticated animals.
It’s not enough to take babies out of the argument from marginal cases, then. These vegans also have to say that all fetuses who are going to be cognitively impaired humans need to be aborted, because being a cognitively impaired human is just as undesirable as being a companion animal. The danger here is that if it became possible to abort every human fetus that was going to develop into a cognitively impaired human, and everyone did this, there would be no more cognitively impaired humans, and thus no more argument from marginal cases making veganism morally obligatory.
But that won’t be a concern for a long time.
3. Be okay with animal breeding and leave babies in the argument from marginal cases, but be unable to consider future consequences of present behavior, and thus only oppose things that are bad in this very moment. Smoke on, vegan teens!
Vegans can reject the argument from potential and leave babies in the argument from marginal cases as long as they are in favor of animal breeding. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t be against animal breeding and reject the argument from potential at the same time, because that would mean you have to be against sex, since you cannot consider the potential that sex has to lead to a new domesticated being. Tolerating animal breeding is an easy way out of this.
Also, by permitting animal breeding, these vegans are saying that it’s okay to bring beings into this world who are dependent on us, which now makes it okay to have babies without having to admit that they will eventually become independent moral agents. Babies can thus stay in the argument from marginal cases because vegans are now allowed to see them only for the dependent beings they are that very moment. It’s also okay to bring severely mentally impaired humans in the world, just as long as you don’t plan on killing them for food. So these vegans don’t need to be clamoring for mandatory natal tests and abortions.
Rejecting the argument from potential creates an odd quirk for these vegans, though. They essentially have to stop considering the future consequences of everything. By refusing to let us treat babies differently now because they will be moral agents in the future, these vegans have trapped themselves into seeing everything only as it is at that moment and ignoring what it will become, forcing them to judge every action only on its instantaneous consequences. This means that harms only count if they are bad right now. These vegans would have no basis for encouraging women to breastfeed their babies because the fact that this could help them grow up into a fitter adults is irrelevant. As long as the baby could do just fine on formula now, there’s nothing to say. Better IQ down the road? Hush, that implies an eventual moral agent!
It wouldn’t make sense to use protection during sex, because that would be admitting that a baby or an STD could arise in the future. You also couldn’t look at the accumulative harm of smoking and poor diet, and the additional risk to heart attacks and cancer these might have. As long as you didn’t get heartburn from each individual burger, you would have no health reason not to eat them. This would, of course, make the vegan health argument impossible. But that’s no big loss.
4. Be okay with animal breeding and the argument from potential, and so take babies out of the argument from marginal cases.
Vegans could accept animal breeding and also accept the argument from potential. This would mean they have to take babies out of the argument from marginal cases (because omnivores could now point out that they are going to grow up to become moral agents and these vegans couldn’t pretend that this doesn’t matter), but cognitively impaired humans could still be in there. And again, vegans wouldn’t have to wish for every future cognitively impaired human to be aborted. Even better, vegans could consider the future when making decisions and so could encourage breastfeeding.
I foresee this one being the most popular, which is why I called the entry what I did.
5. Become a non-dogmatic vegan who cops to ideological inconsistency. (But if you do this, you cannot criticize omnivores simply for being inconsistent.)
Five is my favorite.
Personally, though, I think the best thing for vegans to do is to drop this argument from marginal cases mess entirely. I’ve already written about this, but my next (long) entry will go after it from another angle.
PS: I’ll delete those last two sentences if that prophesied entry doesn’t come together, so enjoy them while they last.