Have you ever been onto a social media site and been horrified by a story of animal abuse a fellow ‘outraged’ friend has shared?
Would you be outraged if you saw someone walk up to a dog in the park and for no necessary, apparent reason inflict pain or death on this dog? Why are we outraged? Do we believe that it is wrong to inflict ‘unnecessary’ suffering and death on animals? The answer for most is ‘Yes’.
But what does this mean? Whatever else it means, it must mean that it is wrong to inflict suffering or death on animals merely because we derive pleasure or amusement from doing so, or because it is convenient to do so, or because it is just plain habit. But the overwhelming portion of our animal use – just about all of it – cannot be justified by anything other than pleasure, amusement, convenience, or habit. It is for this very reason that many choose to become vegan.
This ethical reason is recognition that using animals for inessential human needs causes untold suffering and death. This is an ethical reason; in other words, a response to the question, ‘how should we consider the lives of others and the world around us in how we choose to live our lives?’
Because our ethical perspective is a matter of how each of us feel we ‘ought’ to live and see the world, and not so much one of how we do live and see the world (a subject that constitutes a whole other part of philosophy), it is not something that we can ever ‘prove’. In other words, I can never take out some sort of measuring device, compare my ethics to your ethics and then conclude that mine are ‘bigger’ or ‘more’ than yours. But, just because ethics isn’t very scientific in itself doesn’t mean you can’t use very logical, scientific arguments and data to present your ethical perspective. It also doesn’t mean you’re non-scientific or insensible because you hold different values to the ‘norm’, or that everything is just relative and everyone’s ethics are worthy of equal consideration (few would argue, for example, that a child molester or somebody who puts kittens in microwaves have very endearing ethics!)
In short, your ethics are your views on how you should live your life. They can be based on all sorts of things: experience, science, hearsay, etc. and, while they are not the kind of hard, tangible things that can be measured by science, some ethical perspectives do tend to appeal to us more than others because they carry with them the recognition that one’s actions can cause suffering to others and that, furthermore, others are sometimes very similar to us in their ability to suffer and to experience the world.
Applying ethics to animals
Much has been made of ethical considerations of animals and at the end of the day it is patently obvious – every hamburger, every pint of milk, every egg, every leather belt, every performing circus animal and every application of eyeliner is the result of suffering and the assertion of dominion by humankind over the animal kingdom.
That animals can suffer is a well-proven and indisputable scientific fact. Few, save for the most callous and fundamentalist nay-sayers, would deny that animals are sentient; that they are living, feeling things that experience pleasure and pain. Indeed it is hard to imagine anyone who has ever seen young animals playing, or watched one of the harrowing films (like Earthlings or PETA’s Meet Your Meat) documenting the exploitation of animals resorting to this kind of patently absurd position.
The value of a sentient life is not measured in its utility to others, but in it’s immense, irreplaceable value to the being whose life it is. – Joanna Lucas
Unfortunately, although most people agree on this core issue, many go on to dismiss it as either necessary or within our rights as the ‘masters of nature’.
In the case of the former, the more you look into the matter, the more you will find that use of animals is not a necessity: a vegan diet is easy to pursue, non-animal product clothing is by far the norm and superior alternatives to the questionable act of vivisection exist in almost every field of scientific enquiry.
The problem then is not that the exploitation of our fellow beings is in any way essential, but that people are often either uninformed or, even worse, plain lazy, all of which points to an even deeper problem with the kinds of social and economic systems that lead to such shallow modes of living and pursuit of knowledge. Here, of course, we move far beyond the scope of this humble article, suffice it to say that anyone arguing from ‘necessity’ is either uninformed (in which case a little information may go a long way) or just couldn’t be bothered.
The latter point is more subtle – the idea that humans stand above nature has endured, perhaps because it appeals to a desire for aggrandisement or omnipotence that counters our fears of insignificance or mortality or lack of control. Whatever the reason, people have, since times untold, argued that ‘man’ has a right to exploit animals, due either to having a sole mandate on rationality, being the sole benefactor of divine blessing, being worthy of reward for some sort of custodial duty over nature, or, more simply and sadly, because might is right.
If it isn’t clear that such a view is ethically questionable, consider that it was a position just like this that was used in defense of slavery and to justify the oppression of women or people of different races. The assertion of superior rights by one group or individual over others necessarily, without exception, diminishes the rights of those others.
Some different ethical views on animal rights
In the case of animals, the most fundamental right that is diminished because of human intervention is the right to a natural life, a life free of unnecessary suffering, a full life lived in the manner appropriate to that animal. Recognising and applying these parallels between human and animal exploitation and usurpation of rights through acting ethically to avoid causing such suffering wherever possible is what the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer calls ‘the expanding moral circle’, the idea that our moral considerations should, if they are applied consistently, expand in scope to include animals just as they expanded to include members of different races or genders, both of which were, until recently, excluded from such considerations.
Some people object to the idea that animals can have rights – they argue that to have rights one must have responsibilities, or that rights only come with rationality, or language, or some other uniquely human quality. All these arguments are deeply flawed though; we don’t deny moral consideration to severely physically handicapped people who cannot bear responsibilities nor do we deny the bedridden, the mentally challenged or infants their rights to life.
Singer says that, for these reasons and more, we should not make clear distinctions between species but should rather base our considerations on a hierarchy of sentience; we should afford rights to all beings based on their degree of consciousness. A healthy human, then, would have slightly more rights than a human with severe Alzheimer’s; a chimpanzee might fall somewhere in between these two on Singer’s continuum; a slug much lower and a plant or germ probably right at the bottom. Singer summarises this approach by referring to himself as a ‘sentientist’.
Tom Regan, another prominent animal rights philosopher, uses a slightly different argument to Singer’s utilitarianism. Regan says that, because we cannot really know what it’s like to be another animal; what it is like to be the subject of that life as opposed to our own, we should avoid assigning rights based on any qualities or properties that we regard as necessary and rather grant animals ‘deontological rights’ as ‘subjects of a life’.
While these two approaches might appear similar at first, Singer’s view does seem to be more open to exploitation as it still makes assumptions based on human notions of sentience and how others are sentient proportional to their similarity to humans. Regan’s view simply says that because we cannot be sure how animals experience life, but that they are clearly are living and experiencing, we should err on the side of caution and not impose our systems of measure upon them when granting them rights.
These are just two amongst many divergent views on animal rights; activists like Dr. Steve Best and the radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen also make remarkably insightful observations about ethics, as does the abolitionist and legal specialist Gary Francione.
As you can see, the animal rights debate, ie. the application of ethical philosophy to the question of how humans should regard animals, is a complex and sophisticated one. If you do a Google search for ‘animal rights philosophy’ you will find reams and reams of papers written by academics on the subject, many of which are supportive of the case for granting animals rights.
We’re stating this not to try and impress any non-vegans with an appeal to authority, but rather to suggest that if you’re not convinced by the idea that animals are aware and feeling creatures, and that exploiting them for food, clothing, entertainment and science causes them undue suffering, you probably haven’t thought very much about the matter.
The Ethical Argument
Premise 1: We all agree it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals.
Premise 2: Almost all ‘use’ of animals for food, clothing, vivisection and entertainment, includes the animal suffering or dying.
Premise 3: This ‘use’ is almost always unnecessary
Conclusion: Therefore it is morally wrong to ‘use’ animals and their by-products for food, for clothing, for vivisection and for amusement.
Actually though, it is kind of comforting to know that some of our best academic minds regard it as essential to grant animals rights, especially if you’re worried that you will be judged as a fuzzy-thinker or overly emotive if you decide to evolve your own ethics and move forward to a vegan lifestyle!