I have been a vegetarian for seven months now. The cravings for meat have mostly gone away now, and I feel happy to have gone with my conscience on this one. However, I still get baffled friends and relatives asking me why I would give up meat. I think it's time to properly explain, in the context of a general consideration of animal rights.
Animal rights have a bad reputation at the moment. Certain extremist proponents have come as close to domestic terrorism as we have seen in England in recent years. In my university city of Oxford, property belonging to my college has been burned down in the name of animal liberation. This has turned some people away from animal rights completely.
This is a completely illogical and irrational response, however. The methods by which an ideology is pushed do not affect the merits of the ideology itself (unless it encourages the methods of course). Can we look back at the civil rights movement in the USA and the advances for racial equality gained and disdain them because of the violence supported by those such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers? Of course not. The ends do not justify the means (at least usually) but the means do not tarnish the goals.
Furthermore, and even more profoundly, the fact is that the subjects of the ideology (the animals) had nothing to do with the misbehaviour in their favour. While even in the above example one may say that those who commit terrible acts run the risk of damage to their cause, it is completely unfair to say the same where they are acting for the benefit of another group entirely. It is as ridiculous as disdaigning action against child cruelty because of misbehaviour by organisations opposing child cruelty. Opposing and disdaigning the organisation is rational and principled - doing the same to the cause is neither.
But now to more weighty considerations. To what extent should we protect animal rights? The beginning point as usual, is here empathy. The question is whether and to what extent empathy should be extended to non-humans. Whether animal rights should exist at all is dealt with in this post, and to what extent they should exist in the next.
There is a point of view that empathy should be limited to humans entirely. We should consider animals merely in terms of their value and utility to humanity. By this logic a pet cat should not be tortured due to the distress caused to the owner. Presumably the action would be morally neutral if the cat were an unloved stray, or if its owner did not care for it at all.
While disagreeing with this view with a vehemence, it is possible for there to be a logical consistency to it. A lot of laws against cruelty to animals can in theory be reduced to sparing humans the knowledge that animals are suffering.
Justifying the separation of humans and animals is tricky, however. It can often be explained by a biological instinct to favour our own race over other races. However, explaining is not justifying. In morality, it is necessary to do more than merely explain a stance in order to justify its adoption. The biological instinct can also lead us to favour our family over outsiders, our country over other countries, and our race over other races. Faced with that, few would suggest that it justifies any moral stance.
It is argued by many religious people that God favours humanity. I have already outlined why I believe that God cannot be seen as the ultimate moral authority. If one accepts that animals are unworthy of empathy merely because God says so, without any justification for this, then one has surrendered one's own moral reasoning. In such a case trying to convince such a person of a different moral view is probably futile - the only block which can be challenged in the system is blind acceptance of what they believe God to say.
Outside of that narrow category, other justifications are given. The idea that God created animals for humanity has little bearing. As explained before, there is no reason why God has the authority to create or vary the worth of individuals. He could not make animals worth less than humans any more than he could make women worth less than men, or black men worth less than white men (although both have been so argued). There would have to be something inherent in animals to make them worth less.
Instead, the idea of objective worth is a human notion with no reality attached. No matter how many subjective valuations of worth are made, this never adds up to an objective valuation. Nothing, human, animal or inanimate, is objectively worth anything.
In my Empathy post I explained why empathy was a good basis for a moral system. It does not require objective worth in order for this to work. However, many of the reasons for it boil down to empathy being instinctually good, and benefitting ourselves in the long run. It is possible to restrict it to humanity without destroying the basis upon which our faith in empathy is built. On the other hand, it is (or at least was) possible to restrict it to our own race in such a manner, and yet most good people today refuse to do so. I refuse to do so too, and I refuse to restrict it to humanity. I do so for what can be thought of as the following reason:
Empathy is about helping those you could have been. You could have been born otherwise, and your empathy helps those who are not you. Empathy ensures that had you in fact been born otherwise, you would have benefitted from this.
This is not a justification for empathy, but the rationale that I believe is supported by the partial justifications. It explains the empathetic impulse, it is intellectually coherent and it gives a self-interest slant to altruism. It is the most enlightened self-interest there can be.
With that in mind, we can explain why empathy should equally apply to other races. It also extends far beyond our species, to any living thing. In the next post I will consider how it should be applied in such a way, to such a diverse range of objects, without losing any of its coherence.