Monday, March 20, 2006

Animal Rights - Practicality

The last post was an attempt to explain why animals should be treated with empathy in their own right, rather than just in order to appease humans. Now it is necessary for me to explain how to apply this without ridiculous results. Clearly, we cannot give to all living things the rights we give to humans. We cannot have them vote in our elections, as they have not the means to understand the consequences. Similarly, the right to an education (at least in the human sense) would be wasted on them. Furthermore, do we give rights to plants? As they are living too then we need to explain if and why they are distinguished from animals in what rights we give to them.

The answer lies in the fact that as always the better empathy to apply is appreciative empathy. Remember, this means that rather than treating other beings as if they were you, you should treat them as you would want to be treated if you were as them. So the question is what would they not like to have done to them? Now, sadly we can only experience being human, so it is impossible to know exactly. Some have taken this to mean that we cannot say that any of them experience pain and suffering, and so we cannot seriously contemplate animal rights. However, I say this is misguided. We cannot know that anyone other than ourselves really experiences pain and suffering. The whole point of empathy is to impute our understanding of positive and negative to others in order to do good to them. Our brains are wired up to recognise pleasure and pain in others, and to an extent in animals. We should use this, and all scientific methods available, to save animals from unnecessary pain and degradation.

So far this is pretty obvious to any who care about the rights of animals. Of course we should help them to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. However, the next step is more difficult for many to take: What about death? There are a great many who will quite certainly say that animals must not be unduly distressed, but then accept mass slaughter of them, especially when it comes to food for humans. Often this is because they are so used to eating meat that the idea that it is wrong seems ridiculous. However, many of the arguments used to justify the practice would be seen for their weakness in other areas, and it is only here that they are allowed a sense of reasonableness (remember, I am only dealing here with people who do in fact accept that animals should have rights).

The best and most widely used of these is that it is natural for humans to eat meat. The argument from nature is bizarre in that it is used so selectively, for so few purposes, and yet many people give it much weight when it is. It is respected by many when used against homosexuality (ignoring the many examples of it in nature) and in favour of meat eating. But what if we were to accept this argument in a principled way? What is and is not in our nature? Evolution gave us what was necessary to survive, and especially for men this left strong desires for sex and violence. In many ways those are basic to our nature. The nature of men is arguably promiscuity, and yet we do not place any virtue on this. The same applies to violent conflict, even if we see it as necessary on occasion. Almost no-one truly believes that ethics should be determined by our nature and impulses. If it was then any kind of society or consideration for others beyond self-interest would be frowned upon. Clearly nature is not enough to found any kind of argument for eating meat.

A more sophisticated argument is necessity. The argument goes that unlike random torture of animals for pleasure, killing them for food fulfils a basic human need - sustinence. Now clearly the literal truth of this cannot really be argued any more. Vegetarians can live perfectly healthy lifestyles. What the argument has devolved to is one of convenience. It may well be more convenient to eat meat rather than living as a vegetarian, but since when has this ever determined ethics? It would seem incredible if convenience could be used to subvert ethical considerations. To use an example from within the question of animals, it will often be more convenient (which means more cost effective) to keep chickens locked up and force fed food rather than allowed to roam free when it comes to getting eggs. Does this allow us to ignore the ethical considerations of poorly treating these chickens. Again, if one does not believe animals have any rights, contrary to my previous post, then this will not persuade. But if, like myself and I believe a majority, you believe they do then this argument from convenience cannot be allowed to stand. (Similarly the Christian idea of human dominion over animals may prevent abuse of them which damages their worth to humans but cannot condemn and may indeed positively encourage cruelty in situations like here where it reduces the resources used up.)

A true argument for necessity may however be launched in favour of animal testing for medical research. This requires careful consideration. In essence the argument is that even though animals have these rights, they are prima facie or utilitarian (on the balance of goods) only and so can be overridden where necessity (ie. respect for human life) dictates. This suffers the problems of simplistic utilitarianism and if it were applied to humans the problems would be incredibly clear. If the rights to freedom from torture and death are only prima facie, to be overridden in order to prevent a greater volume of torture and death, then it would be morally justifiable to do testing not on animals but on human prisoners, especially since they would be more effective that way. The fact that such human experimentation appears abhorrent lends support to my view that empathy makes such rights definite, not utilitarian. (To clarify, I am not saying they could not necessarily be overridden in certain circumstances like killing for self-defence. Indeed my second abortion post argued that even if a foetus is a human life, respect for the dignity of the mother can override its right to life. However, I am saying that it can never be reason enough merely to say that it helps more people if we violate this right.)

So a number of possibilities can be identified. No rights for humans or animals has been rejected out of hand. Rights for humans but not for animals was dealt with in the previous pose. Definite rights for both is my argument. Utilitarian rights for both would appear abhorrent (on the human side) to empathy and most thinking. Therefore supporters of animal testing would have to support definite rights for humans, but only utilitarian rights for animals. However, this distinction is arbitrary. A very good reason would have to be found to give an entirely different type of right to the two groups, and the reasons given have fallen very short.

The clearest problem with most of the suggestions for morally distinguishing humans and animals is that they are ignored when applied to humans. Appeals that animals are stupider or not self-aware or cannot themselves empathise do not account for humans who are stupid, not self-aware or unable to empathise. No one would suggest that their rights should be considered lesser because of this. In essence it is not the type of mind but the body, the shell surrounding it, which determines whether such people think these rights should be surperior or inferior. There is clearly no principled reason for this. Appreciative empathy only varies depending on what would be appreciated by the object of the empathy. It does not punish them for lacking empathy themselves. Unless we are to abandon the norms of ethics and resort to the law of the jungle, they must apply to those who will not apply them back to us. Otherwise they are not ethical principles at all, only self-interested and cynical pacts.

So what are we left with? Once one accepts that animals deserve some rights, it seems impossible to identify a reason to deny them the same rights as humans (subject to the appreciative empathy filter of only rights which they will appreciate) which could not apply to some humans. Unless we radically devalue the protections rights give to humans, convenience and even necessity in the utilitarian sense cannot justify their torture and death.

There is one final, somewhat bizarre argument which seems to underlie many arguments of those who eat meat while arguing that animals should not be treated cruelly. This is that killing them is okay as long as it is painless. They are not suffering, so it is not wrong (this is often annexed to the convenience argument to tip the scales in favour of allowing it). This goes right to the heart of the question of what is wrong with murder. Of course, none of these people would suggest that murder of humans is okay as long as painless and without causing fear. Instead they would suggest that somehow the wrong of killing is limited to humans. Again, this distinction makes no sense. Why is painlessly killing a human sleeping soundly in her bed wrong? The reason which appeals to me most is that you rob them of something: Their awareness, their mind, their memories and experience. This of course applies equally to animals. Any distinction will again be one which could apply to any human and is not morally significant in any normal scenario. Equally the rationale that one violates the person's autonomy applies equally well to animals. Whatever reason is used for the distinction, there is no reason that killing can be excused just because it is painless.

It has been argued in this post that once it is accepted that animals are worthy of rights so, as the last post argued, they should be treated well for their own sakes rather than for the benefit of people, they must be accorded the same rights as humans as far as they can appreciate them. The distinctions offered to support eating meat and animal testing are unprincipled and illogical. Hopefully this will help those who do not understand my vegetarianism, and perhaps persuade others to consider the issues for themselves. If you cannot find a way, given what I have said, to justify these distinctions, please ask yourself this: How can conveniences like eating meat be worth violating the ethical standards we hold ourselves to in other areas? Do we actually have ethical standards? Or do we only have them until it is convenient to cast them aside? Goodnight all.


Abi said...

5:13am! More like Good morning than Good night :P

A good post, as usual :-) I will have to ask Ashke what rights he would like!

Anonymous said...

"Now it is necessary for me to explain how to apply this"

no it isn't.

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