Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Animals Like Us

Like most of us, I have an instinctive sense of ‘morality’. I know when something is clearly good and when something is really bad. I cannot explain it to you in one or two clear sentences, because my sense of morality is so much part of who I am. I wouldn’t be ‘me’ without it. I am not trying to sound saintly or anything, that’s just part of the human condition and it probably counts for most of us.

The fact that my sense of right and wrong is so deeply ingrained in me, is what makes it so difficult to put into practice. The devil is in the details, as they say. How do I decide how ‘bad’ it is to steal a five-dollar eyebrow pencil from the drug store? There is no chart posted at the entrance of CVS that gives the stealing of eyebrow pencils a ‘goodness/badness’ rating. It would be impractical because CVS would have to compare it to everything else that I potentially could do that qualifies as bad. And that is an infinite amount of things. In other words, if we gave every action a goodness/badness rating, morality would become so unmanageable that we would drown in a morass of dos and don’ts and we would soon throw the moral baby out with the bath water.

But just because we cannot give every single action a badness/goodness rating, doesn't mean that we cannot talk about the concept of morality in a very specific way. In fact that is what moral philosophers do for a living; they talk and think about the concept of morality, not whether an action is morally good or bad.

I am glad they do, because that way you and I don't have to rely on places like CVS to rank our actions for badness or goodness. If you are not sure whether the thing you do is good or bad, you can go to a moral philosopher's theories on the concepts of morality and see where your action fits in.

Animals like Us

One area of morality that I have skillfully avoided thinking about most of my life, is my relationship to animals. I am not going to pretend that I know more about morality than you, so rather than try to sound erudite, I will tell you what philosopher Mark Rowlands has to say about this in his book 'Animals Like Us'.

His approach is similar to the way I used to think when I was learning about right and wrong as a child, trying to fit reality into my ideal version of it. Amazing how moral philosophers say with fancy words what a child instinctively knows. But let me get to the point.

The Moral Club

Rowlands draws an excellent and humorous analogy. He considers morality as a club and the only qualification to join the club is that you possess 'consciousness'. Rocks cannot enter the club, but animals can. The problem is that, even though they are in the club, since it is pretty clear that animals have consciousness, they don't have the same status as human members.

Rowlands explains why this situation is 'inconsistent' with our two general principles of morality: 'the principle of equality', i.e. all people are created equal and 'the principle of desert', i.e. people should not be blamed (or praised) for things that are beyond their control. An even more basic principle, on which equality is based, is the principle that there should be 'no moral difference without some other, relevant, difference.' If there had been two Hitlers, one with a moustache and one without, they both would have been equally evil, since the moustache is an irrelevant difference. Aristotle believed that talented people should have more moral rights than the average Joe, but we have come to a point in our moral history where intelligence, talent, beauty, race, age, etc. are considered morally irrelevant differences. Smart people and stupid people are deserving of equal moral treatment.

The Argument from Marginal Cases

Ok. So we agree that if members of one group, say women, are not relevantly different from men, they should be treated equally as men. But what about animals? Do they have 'relevant' other differences so that we are not obligated to treat them equally?

There are many differences between animals and humans. For one thing we don't look the same. Is that a relevant 'other' difference? Rowlands says that if you can find an exception to the rule, the rule doesn't apply. There are many humans that suffer from deformities which makes them look different from the rest of us. If the exception to the rule wouldn't rule out the rule, all these people would be fair game. We could treat them as if we didn't owe them anything. We could torture them, lock them up, etc.

We are also more intelligent than animals and we are able to talk. Are those relevant 'other' differences? If they are, then a mentally handicapped person or a mute is not deserving of the same moral treatment. If you do not agree with the above, you cannot use the intelligence and language card to argue against giving animals equal moral consideration.

The Principle of Desert

The second principle says that you cannot blame or praise someone for something that they have no control over. Being born short, female, blue eyed, even being born an animal cannot diminish your moral entitlement, because you have no control over it. You cannot be denied your right to living your life without being vivisected upon, killed for your meat or caged just because you were born as an animal.

The Original Position

If you didn't know anything about yourself, whether you are male or female, smart or stupid, black or white, or even human or not; what kind of society would you want to build? Obviously you would choose a society that would be beneficial for all members because you have no way of knowing where you fit in. This idea was developed by John Rawls and is called the Original Position. In this position you are behind a 'veil of ignorance'

Rowlands goes a step further and puts all the qualities that we are not responsible for having behind the veil of ignorance, including the knowledge of which species we belong to. He calls this the 'Impartial Position'. With one swell scoop he includes the concepts of equality, just desert and justice. Pretty clever.

Moral Agents and Moral Patients

It is often argued that animals have no right to equal moral treatment because they have no capacity for being moral agents. They can only be moral patients. This is the same as saying that you don't deserve equal moral consideration if you cannot ACT morally. Very young children and mentally handicapped adults are not able to be moral agents. Does that mean they are not entitled to the same moral consideration? Of course not. But even that distinction is placed behind the veil of ignorance, in Rawlson's theory. In other words, it doesn't matter. It is not a relevant difference because you are not in control of it.

All of this talk about morality is nice and dandy, but if it doesn’t translate into real actions, what good is it, you may ask? As Rawlson explains, it serves the purpose of helping us think clearly about the issue. We cannot be ignorant of who we are in the real world. But we can ‘imagine’ it. And that is a very powerful ability. We can imagine being female or black at a time when these groups had no equal moral rights.

Some people object to giving animals moral rights because they cannot imagine what it's like to be them. But you don’t have to imagine what it’s like; it is enough to imagine that you lack the properties that make you human.

Animals as Food

I cannot imagine what it's like to be a battery hen, but if I lived in a world where I could end up being one, I would prefer that that world would not practice battery chicken farming, because if I were a ‘laying hen’, this is what my life would be like:

Soon after my birth, I would get debeaked with a red-hot blade, severing sensitive nerves in my face, after which I would be sent to a battery cage, which I would share with four other chickens. I would not have room to turn around because my space would be about the size of the page this is typed on. If I was at the low end of the ‘pecking order’, I would soon find myself pecked raw and bleeding. If I were not pecked to death, I would develop osteoporosis from being forced to lay eggs every day. By then, I would certainly have turned insane and started to resort to cannibalism. After a year or two I would have become useless to my owner. He would still try to squeeze a few more eggs out of me by ‘force moulting’ me. I would be put in a dark cage, without food or water for the last few days of my life. If I managed to still be alive, he would discard me by shoving me in a plastic bag where I would have the privilege of suffocating to death with countless other suffocating hens.

This is just one example of the practice of factory farming. If I were a milking cow, I would stay indoors all my life and probably never see green grass. I would get artificially inseminated, my calf would be taken away from me soon after birth and my horns would be removed, of course. But the animal that I would least want to be in the impartial position is a veal calf. I will spare you the gory details of my existence, but I am sure there are other sources on the Internet where you can find my gruesome biography.

From the standpoint of the ‘impartial position’, it doesn’t really make sense to choose a world where intensive farming is practiced. If you are an animal eaten by humans you will lead a life so miserable and full of suffering that it is beyond words. If you are a human you will enjoy the pleasures of the palette. On the other hand, if you choose a world without factory farming, you stand to gain a lot as an animal and loose very little as a human.

Animals for Experimentation

In the ‘Impartial position’ it doesn’t make sense to choose the non-vital interests of one group over the vital interests of another, since you don’t know which group you belong to. So, what about vivisection? Does the life of a test animal not serve the vital interests of the human that benefits from these tests? Earlier, Rawlson argued that a human has more to lose by dying than an animal, because a human has more invested in the future. That future would be taken away from him by dying. So, the life of the test animal has to be weighed against the vital interests of the human.

First of all, most tests performed on animals do not serve human vital interests. These include cosmetic testing, testing for allergies, poisons etc. You are not going to call the CDC when your child has swallowed a bottle of Drano, to find out if animal tests have shown it to be poisonous. You drive to the emergency room and have his stomach pumped. Many tests can be performed without the use of live animals. The results of many tests performed on animals are useless because they do not extrapolate to humans. And finally, even in the rare cases where animal tests serve vital human interests, 'transferring the risk and harm to animals is inconsistent with our sense of 'autonomy', something we greatly value, both as humans and as animals.' The way I interpret this, is that anything you do in life includes a certain amount of risk (and potential harm). If you chose a world where risk could be 'transferred', this would force you to lose your autonomy, your ability to do what you want. That is immoral.

Animals in Zoos

If you think that locking an animal in a cage so we can ogle at it, serves a vital human interest, then you are terminally deranged. It robs it of its freedom, causes it great harm and offers little benefit to the human. In the ‘impartial position’ opting for a world with zoos is irrational. In the real world it is immoral.


Does hunting serve a vital human interest and therefore justifies the violation of the vital interests of an animal by killing it? Only in cases where it is necessary for the preservation of human life. The Inuit cannot survive without eating meat, but most of us can. But if it's ok for a wolf to kill a caribou, why is it wrong for us to kill one? Because a wolf is not a moral agent. The wolf cannot be morally blamed for his action. What about the poor caribou? shouldn’t we help it, just like we would help a child being attacked by a coyote? In the ‘impartial position’ it would be irrational to opt for a world where predators are prevented from culling the weaker members of a group of prey. It’s best to leave things as they are. Predators need prey to survive, prey needs predators to stay healthy.


We view everything that nature has to offer as a ‘resource’. A mountain is a source of ore, rivers are a source of hydroelectric power, the forest a source of paper. This view, in itself, is ethically questionable, but for animals it is downright tragic. They are reduced to nothing more than a ‘renewable resource’, something to be eaten, experiment on, wear, look at, hunt and kill for entertainment.

But this is nothing compared to what is in stock for future generations of animals. Xenotransplantation, transplanting organs from an animal to a human, is what they can look forward to. And all of this, because we are unwilling to bear the risks that living life inherently holds. We need a new lung because we smoke too much? Let the animals pay for it. We develop heart disease because we eat too much? Let the test animals suffer so we can continue gorging ourselves.

I cannot help but feel that everything Rawlson is describing, I already 'knew'. I just forgot. I knew it before I succumbed to a tacit acceptance of our society's norms. Like many children, I was in 'the zone', behind a veil of ignorance, which made me much wiser than I am now. The way we (mist)treat animals is morally unacceptable and Rawlson uses a set of airtight arguments to prove it.

I will end by quoting the last sentence of Rawlson's incredible book: 'It is not Jesus that is suffering so that we don't have to. It is the Draize rabbit, the LD-50 mouse, the heroin monkey and the smoking dog'. leave comment here