Unintentional versus intentional actions

Unintentional versus intentional actions

Vegan Society of Canada News
Published October 12th 2023
Updated October 12th 2023

There has been much debate over what constitutes “intentional” versus “unintentional” exploitation and what this means for human animals and other animal rights. Regarding killing within the human species, Pnevmatikos explains that intent is the mitigating factor in determining guilt in a court of law, specifically when killing in self-defence or accidentally. Non-mitigating factors are intentional killing and killing of animals for food. When referring to harm caused to human animals, knowledge of wrongdoing is the primary consideration when determining the level of guilt. Other key considerations are the circumstances surrounding the harm and whether or not the harm was justified or whether the individual who caused the harm was reckless.

It’s useful to refer to legal terms that help us differentiate between intentional and unintentional harm when referring to interhuman interactions. In this case, the most relevant legal terms seem to be voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Denning notes that although both forms require killing not to be a result of premeditation or deliberation, for voluntary manslaughter, the act must have caused death or great bodily harm and be intentional. Involuntary manslaughter occurs when there has been an unintentional infliction of harm due to an intentional, willful or wanton violation of a statute or ordinance designed to protect human life or limb.

For human animals in court, there is a discrepancy between premeditated killing (murder) and unplanned killing (manslaughter) and once more between intent to harm (voluntary manslaughter) and unintentional harm (involuntary manslaughter). The two basic questions that can be asked with these discrepancies are:

1) Was the harm premeditated?

2) Was the harm intentional?

Although the result of killing is ultimately the same, vegans are constantly evaluating whether killing can truly be considered unintentional in various aspects of life, for example in farming practices that are almost certain to kill field animals. In addition, various schools of thought under the umbrella of consequentialism at some point further refine what is considered unintentional versus intentional into intended, foreseen, foreseeable, likely, unforeseen, and unforeseeable consequences. Defining these terms helps our moral reasoning.

Foreseen consequences are consequences that we know or are aware of prior to performing the actions. For example, if we drive a car we can foresee that we will use gas. On the other hand, foreseeable consequences are consequences that we could have known if we had done more research or investigation. Foreseeable consequences depend on our level of knowledge and effort. For example, we may not have foreseen being late to work due to a traffic jam but it was the foreseeable consequence of driving a car since we would have known about the delays if we had looked at the traffic report.

Unforeseen consequences are simply consequences that we did not know or were not aware of prior to performing the action, while unforeseeable consequences are consequences that could not have been known with more research or investigation.

Intended consequences are the ones we aim to bring about by performing an action while likely consequences are the ones that are likely to occur as the result of performing an action. For example, if we speed our intention might be to arrive earlier but a likely consequence might be that we will use more gas.

An important difference between foreseeable and likely is that foreseeable consequences depend on the level of knowledge and availability of the information while a likely consequence is a purely objective observation that depends on factual or statistical evidence. For example, when walking outside to get your mail, your neighbour hands you $100. This was an unforeseeable consequence because research or investigation would not have alerted you that your neighbour secretly decided to give $100 to the first person who walked out. Nevertheless, it was a likely consequence because you are most often the first one outside in the morning.

Translating this into the realm of veganism with a traditional example, we see that the killing done in farming by pesticides is an intended action to kill no different than the intent to kill a shrimp to eat it. On the other hand, the killing of animals by machinery during harvest is unintended but foreseen, foreseeable and a likely consequence of using traditional harvesting machinery. As outlined in our article on the cocoa industry, most products containing chocolate are not suitable for people who self-identify as vegans; the exploitation of animals may be unforeseen for some, but it is both foreseeable and a likely consequence of chocolate production.

Another example to show the nuance of these concepts would be DDT. For the general public, the danger of DDT to all animals was unforeseen. To some, the threat may have been unforeseeable while for others it may have been foreseeable depending in part on their level of knowledge and access to relevant information. Since early tests had shown various issues in animals, but it was simply hidden, the harm to animals was a likely consequence.

Other considerations in terms of unintentional versus intentional harm are capital punishment, war, nuclear weapons, abortion, boxing, fox hunting, shooting and angling for sport. In general, there is little to no research that focuses exclusively on people who self-identify as vegan. In some cases, extrapolation might be appropriate but in the case of exploitation, it’s unlikely to be possible since attitudes toward the exploitation of animals vary greatly between people who self-identify as vegan and others.

Some research by Hamilton that focuses mainly on people who do not eat traditional meat (NME) vs. meat eaters (ME) found that fox hunting and other blood sports were opposed by both NMEs and MEs. Opposition to nuclear weapons and capital punishment was less clearly defined and there was almost no difference in terms of opposition to abortion and boxing. It seems that NMEs are highly motivated to resist authoritarianism and regulatory orientation over opposition to exploitation in many of these cases. Some evidence suggests that NMEs are more ethically motivated to be sensitive to and concerned about actions involving violence than the population in general.

There was a reluctance to ban abortion and boxing on the grounds of individual liberty, as well as banning meat altogether. However, NME were more likely to support a ban on fox hunting. Hunting and shooting were perceived as an elitist activity while angling was considered a working-class pastime. Though NMEs oppose angling, they are typically reluctant to ban the activity. Much concern was expressed for the harm and suffering of the fish, despite questions over their sentience compared to birds and mammals. Surprisingly, considering the question about sentience, not as much concern was given to the exploitation of aquatic birds as a result of fishing lines and hooks compared to the exploitation of fish.

We are seeing a lot of grey areas where there is no consistent position in terms of intentional versus unintentional harm, as well as what constitutes acceptable harm. These are unlikely to translate well to veganism. For example, we have no qualms about banning both fox hunting and fishing, and we posit that many people who self-identify as vegans do not as well.

The distinction between exploitation, which is what we are against, and harm, which includes both exploitative and non-exploitative actions, like cutting an animal open to perform life-saving surgery, becomes crucial to understand. This is where there is further opportunity for research as this study ignores those important differences since presumably boxing between two human animals is mutually agreed upon, freely entered into by two human animals of sound mind and is unlikely to satisfy the necessary conditions to rise to the level of exploitation. On the other hand, fishing and hunting do.

A vegan world where our vision is achieved does not mean a bubble-wrapped world where human animals of sound mind will not harm each other; it means that they will do so without exploitation being present.

The Least Harm Principle has had a strong influence on the philosophy of veganism when dealing with situations where neither choice is desirable. We find aspects of this in the precautionary principle, which is one of the foundations of veganism. When presented with this dilemma, a person should choose the least harm possible. One example is the Hippocratic oath in which doctors swear to do no harm.

We defined veganism in relation to its vision as “Veganism is a way of life and philosophy that when practiced will result in the end of the exploitation of all animals, including human animals.” Many critics of veganism have fallaciously constructed a “veganism is impossible” straw man argument. As we discussed, it’s likely impossible to end animal use since many human-animal relationships are based on mutual use, but ending exploitation, while difficult not because of any insurmountable problem but due in large part to our selfishness, is certainly possible.

Too many people who self-identify as vegans consider supplementing their diet with non-traditional animal proteins like arthropods. Some will argue that the option of supplementing non-traditional animal proteins as a means to reduce the overall harm inflicted on animals is justified and that moral uncertainty does not support the adoption of a diet void of animal products. Their argument is based on the premise that animals hold varying degrees of moral status which allows more moral flexibility when dietary decisions are made. Some of them will acknowledge that there is rampant disagreement concerning the moral status of different animals among philosophers.

It is further argued that the intentional and unintentional harm to animals with presumably high moral status caused by plant agriculture and the uncertainty of plant sentience have also become problematic for the precautionary argument. Finally, some will argue that new omnivorous diets can minimize animal harm by incorporating roadkill, insentient insects, humanely farmed herbivores, farmed oysters, or other non-traditional sources of animal protein and state that non-animal ethicists should adopt this diet.

We strongly disagree with those who espouse these views; our position is not that we should address the exploitation of animals in our current plant farming practices by further exploiting more animals with non-traditional animal protein, but instead, as we have discussed, to invest in research and development and support nascent industries that better align with our philosophy. For example, supporting greenhouse farming instead of traditional crop growing practices.

We have also addressed the issue of sentience in general, and plant sentience in particular, in our article on the precautionary principle. There are concerns regarding human health from non-traditional sources of animal protein and little to no research exists into the potential effects of non-traditional proteins on the gut microbiome, immunity, inflammatory conditions, DNA damage, cognition, and cellular aging.

The role of moral reasoning has a significant place in the veganism discussion. Cushman et al. addressed whether moral judgment is accomplished by intuition or conscious reasoning and found that the answer demands a detailed account of the moral principles in question. They list the three principles that guide moral judgements: (a) harm caused by action is worse than the harm caused by omission, (b) harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm foreseen as the side effect of a goal, and (c) harm involving physical contact with the victim is worse than harm involving no physical contact. They found that subjects generally agreed with the first and third principles, but not the second. It was concluded that the moral principles used in judgment must be directly compared with those articulated in justification, and doing so shows that some moral principles are available to conscious reasoning whereas others are not.

McIntyre notes Michael Walzer’s point that agents who cause harm as a foreseen side effect of promoting a good end must be willing to accept additional risk or forgo some benefit to minimize how much harm they cause. When satisfying these two conditions, it may be necessary to consider an agent’s current circumstances and available options. McIntyre defines the double effect as a justification of unintended (but foreseen) harm to an intended benefit. Self-defence and self-sacrifice could be considered justified to save your life or the lives of others. However, it is important to note that there are many issues with the doctrine of double effect that surround the fact that textbook examples of the doctrine do not portray well all the moral issues at play in those examples.

It seems as long as we have been on earth we have done various mental gymnastics to legitimize our killing, harm or exploitation of others. Two great textbook examples of this struggle are terminal sedation and war. Terminal sedation, often justified in part by the doctrine of double effect, is a currently accepted practice both medically and legally even in jurisdictions where other similar harm is denied like in the case of medically assisted dying. Ironically, in this case, it is clear scientifically that the relief of pain if done properly even in a terminally ill patient does not have to hasten death and a careful examination of the double effect doctrine would exclude terminal sedation.

War is another good example of the mental gymnastics we go through to justify killing. We often use variants of the double effect doctrine to justify proactive war. However, we more often than not apply it in such ways as to only highlight portions that go to strengthen our justification for war instead of the safety mechanism present in the double effect doctrine that would make war impossible in many cases.

The lines between intentional and unintentional harm have been a challenge for our species as long as we have existed and are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. For people who self-identify as vegan, it is crucial to be aware of those issues and uncover the deceptions of our society that hide exploitation under the cloak of unintentional consequences and unfortunate circumstances over which, we would be led to believe, we have no control. Plants are not inherently better and various concepts like what is and is not intentional may help us make a more objective evaluation of our actions and refrain from exploitation wherever it is found—whether in animals, plants, or anything else. We hope this article allows us to reflect on these issues so we can one day end the exploitation of animals.

What is ethically wrong with killing, animal testing or any other form of animal exploitation is not where it occurs in the supply chain, or whether it occurs to an animal that looks like a cow, but that it occurs at all. Always support products, services, certifications and organizations that align with your beliefs. Ours are clear and our dedication to our vision is unwavering.

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