The Lion, the HitchBOT and the Fetus

After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.

When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.

Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.

One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:

Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.

Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.

Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.

Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.

Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:

Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.

Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).

Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.

This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.

As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.

A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.

A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.

Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”

An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:

  1. Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
  2. Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
  3. Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.

Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).

A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.

The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.

One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.

The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.

Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.

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  1. Mike;

    In evaluating an ethic or moral question, does the intention of the action have any relevance? If we include intention, the analysis becomes more complicated but more real.
    In killing Cecil, the intention was to collect a trophy: they took a life, performed a cruel act for just a trophy- a vanity, an ego driven pleasure.
    In abortion, the intention can vary as the case; it can go from rape to poverty, to many others causes. It is rarely ego or vanity driven, and it is usually heart breaking. I believe that intention is critical to understanding the moral value of the action. In addition, there is a debate on when life begins that makes this even murkier.

  2. There’s a certain kind of “pro-lifer”, (this kind is very common), who is against abortion. But for the death penalty.

    When questioned on this inconsistency, the stock response is “The fetus has committed no crime”.

    I’m confident, these people, are full of crap, as many people are. And the inconsistency is not due to stupidity, but deviousness, as they do not want their true ideology to be known, and they feel they have more to lose than just an argument.

    Take the racists. Zachary Hammond, a white 19 year old, who was killed by a police officer in Seneca, South Carolina, on the 26th of July. He was unarmed, sitting with his girlfriend in a fast food drive through. The racists have taken this event as an opportunity to point out the “inconsistency” of the anti-racists, by their lack of outrage over the death of Zachary Hammond. That the death of Zachary Hammond was being ignored, because he had been unfortunate enough to have been born with white skin. The racists are outraged at the lack of outrage.

    The American police have a rolling massacre. No police force in the world comes anywhere near the number of people they kill. They kill lots of white people. The racists have been unconcerned with the deaths of white people at the hands of the police, right up to now, where they use the death of white teenager, with knowing deviousness, to point out a moral inconsistency of the anti-racists, that doesn’t exist.

    There wasn’t a lack of attention given to Zachary Hammond, there is in fact a global spotlight shining on this issue at present. It’s just the American police are murdering so many unarmed teenagers it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the body count.

  3. John M,

    While other philosophers do disagree, I think that intention is relevant. It seems clearly relevant to assessing the ethical status of the person taking the action. As you note, the intention in killing seems to have an impact on the ethics of the situation. If a woman has an abortion because she was raped, that is rather different morally from the hypothetical woman having an abortion so she can look good in her swimsuit while she goes on vacation.

    In the case of the lion killing, if a lion is killed with the intention of protecting one’s life, that is different from shooting it for an ego boost or for fun.

  4. JMRC,

    Good point. While a person’s motivations for making a claim/argument do not prove/disprove the claim/argument, sorting out a person’s motivations is certainly relevant to sorting out her ethical principles.

    If a person claims to be against, for example, abortion based on a principle such as “killing is wrong”, then the test would be to see whether or not he consistently applies that principle. If he does not, that would suggest (as you note) deception: the person is putting forth a laudable principle that conceals his true principle. For example, some argue that certain “pro-life” folks are actually anti-woman because of their positions on the relevant moral issues (such as child care).

  5. I would like to add a small and personal observation, that it is all too common to see someone advocating for very specific principles like “do not kill famous lions that are under intense study” without necessarily going a step further in abstraction.
    The principle above is very specific and one must abstract a few times to arrive at the general principle of “do not kill living things”, which again is (in my view) not as general as “do not destroy” or”do not cause any harm”.
    Can we really blame the gentry for not realizing a certain specific principle implies other principle, some as specific and others more general?

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