Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


The Moral Status of Animals

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-animal/

What is distinctive about humanity such that humans are thought to have moral status and non-humans do not? Providing an answer to this question has become increasingly important among philosophers as well as those outside of philosophy who are interested in our treatment of non-human animals. For some, answering this question will enable us to better understand the nature of humans and the proper scope of our moral obligations. Some argue that there is an answer that can distinguish humans from the rest of the natural world. Many of those who accept this answer are interested in justifying certain human practices towards non-humans—practices that cause pain, discomfort, suffering and death. This latter group expect that in answering the question in a particular way, humans will be justified in granting moral consideration to other humans that is neither required nor justified when considering non-human animals. In contrast to this view, many philosophers have argued that there is no philosophically defensible way to morally distinguish humans and to deny non-human animals moral consideration, but what the basis of that consideration is and what it amounts to has been the source of much disagreement.

1. The Moral Considerability of Animals

To say that a being deserves moral consideration is to say that there is a moral claim that this being has on those who can recognize such claims. A morally considerable being is a being who can be wronged in the morally relevant sense. It is generally thought that all and only human beings make such claims, however, when we ask why it is thought that all and only humans are the types of beings that can be wronged, answers are not particularly easy to come by. Humans are members of the species Homo sapiens. But species membership does not explain why there is a moral claim made by those that belong to this species and not other species. That humans are members of the species Homo sapiens is certainly a distinguishing feature of humans -- humans share a genetic make-up and a distinctive physiology, but this is unimportant from the moral point of view. Species membership is a morally irrelevant characteristic, a bit of luck which is no more morally interesting than being born male or female, Malaysian or French. Thus species membership itself cannot support the view that members of one species, namely ours, deserve moral consideration that is not owed to members of other species. Of course, one might respond that it is not membership in a biological category that matters morally, it is our humanity that grounds the moral claims we make. Humans are morally considerable because of the distinctively human capacities we possess, capacities that only we humans have.

But which capacities mark out all and only humans as the kinds of beings that can be wronged? A number of candidate capacities have been proposed—developing family ties, solving social problems, expressing emotions, starting wars, having sex for pleasure, using language, or thinking abstractly, are just a few. As it turns out, none of these activities is uncontroversially unique to human. Both scholarly and popular work on animal behavior suggests that many of the activities that are thought to be distinct to humans occurs in non-humans. For example, many species of non-humans develop long lasting kinship ties—orangutan mothers stay with their young for eight to ten years and while they eventually part company, they continue to maintain their relationships. Less solitary animals, such as chimpanzees, baboons, wolves, and elephants maintain extended family units built upon complex individual relationships, for long periods of time. Meerkats in the Kalahari desert are known to sacrifice their own safety by staying with sick or injured family members so that the fatally ill will not die alone. All animals living in socially complex groups must solve various problems that inevitably arise in such groups. Canids and primates are particularly adept at it, yet even chickens and horses are known to recognize large numbers of individuals in their social hierarchies and to maneuver within them. One of the ways that non-human animals negotiate their social environments is by being particularly attentive to the emotional states of others around them. When a conspecific is angry, it is a good idea to get out of his way. Animals that develop life-long bonds are known to suffer terribly from the death of their partners. Some are even said to die of sorrow. Darwin reported this in The Descent of Man: "So intense is the grief of female monkeys for the loss of their young, that it invariably caused the death of certain kinds." Jane Goodall's report of the death of the healthy 8 year old chimpanzee Flint just three weeks after the death of his mother Flo also suggests that sorrow can have a devastating effect on non-human animals. (see Goodall 2000, p. 140-141 in Bekoff 2000). Coyotes, elephants and killer whales are also among the species for which profound effects of grief have been reported (Bekoff 2000) and many dog owners can provide similar accounts. While the lives of many, perhaps most, non-humans in the wild are consumed with struggle for survival, aggression and battle, there are some non-humans whose lives are characterized by expressions of joy, playfulness, and a great deal of sex. Recent studies in cognitive ethology have suggested that some non-humans engage in manipulative and deceptive activity, can construct "cognitive maps" for navigation, and some non-humans appear to understand symbolic representation and are able to use language.[1] It appears then that most of the capacities that are thought to distinguish humans as morally considerable beings, have been observed, often in less elaborate form, in the non-human world. Because human behavior and cognition share deep roots with the behavior and cognition of other animals, approaches that try to find sharp behavioral or cognitive boundaries between humans and other animals remain controversial. For this reason, attempts to establish human uniqueness by identifying certain capacities, like those discussed in this paragraph and perhaps others, are not the most promising when it comes to thinking hard about the moral status of animals.

Nonetheless, there is something important that is thought to distinguish humans from non-humans that is not reducible to the observation of behavior best explained by possessing a certain capacity, namely our "personhood." The notion of personhood identifies a category of morally considerable beings that is thought to be coextensive with humanity. Historically, Kant is the most noted defender of personhood as the quality that makes a being valuable and thus morally considerable. In the Groundwork, Kant writes:

...every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will...Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves. (Kant, 1785, 428)

And in the Lectures on Anthropology:

The fact that the human being can have the representation "I" raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth. By this he is a person....that is, a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one's discretion." (Kant, LA, 7, 127)

More recent work in a Kantian vein develops this idea. Christine Korsgaard, for example, argues that humans "uniquely" face a problem, the problem of normativity. This problem emerges because of the reflective structure of human consciousness. We can, and often do, think about our desires and ask ourselves "Are these desires reasons for action? Do these impulses represent the kind of things I want to act according to?" Our reflective capacities allow us and require us to step back from our mere impulses in order to determine when and whether to act on them. In stepping back we gain a certain distance from which we can answer these questions and solve the problem of normativity. We decide whether to treat our desires as reasons for action based on our conceptions of ourselves, on our "practical identities." When we determine whether we should take a particular desire as a reason to act we are engaging in a further level of reflection, a level that requires an endorseable description of ourselves. This endorseable description of ourselves, this practical identity, is a necessary moral identity because without it we cannot view our lives as worth living or our actions as worth doing. Korsgaard suggests that humans face the problem of normativity in a way that non-humans apparently do not:

A lower animal's attention is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will. It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them. That is, they are not the objects of its attention. But we human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, on to our own mental activities, and we are conscious ofthem. That is why we can think about them…

And this sets us a problem that no other animal has. It is the problem of the normative.... The reflective mind cannot settle for perception and desire, not just as such. It needs a reason. (Korsgaard, 1996, 93)

Here, Korsgaard understands "reason" as "a kind of reflective success" and given that non-humans are unable to reflect in a way that could be "successful," it would appear that they do not act on reasons, at least reasons of this kind. This failure to have reasons to act provides a basis upon which moral consideration can be denied. Since non-humans do not act on reasons they do not have a practical identity from which they reflect and for which they act. So humans can be distinguished from non-humans because humans, we might say, are sources of normativity and non-humans are not.

Yet Kant's view of personhood and Korsgaard's sophisticated personhood account cannot distinguish all and only humans as morally considerable. Personhood is not, in fact, coextensive with humanity when understood as a general description of the group to which human beings belong. And the serious part of this problem is not that there may be some extra-terrestrials or deities who have rational capacities (It seems likely that Kant recognized this when he wrote "man, and in general every rational being"). The serious problem is that many humans are not persons. Some members of humanity—i.e. infants, children, people with advanced forms of autism or Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive disorders—do not have the rational, self-reflective capacities associated with personhood. This problem, unfortunately known in the literature as the problem of "marginal humans," poses serious difficulties for "personhood" as the criterion of moral considerability. Many beings who's positive moral value we have deeply held intuitions about, and who we treat as morally considerable, will be excluded from consideration by this account.

There are three ways to respond to this counter-intuitive conclusion. One, which can be derived from one interpretation of Kant, is to suggest that non-persons are morally considerable indirectly. Though Kant believed that animals were mere things it appears he did not genuinely believe we could dispose of them any way we wanted. In the Lectures on Ethics he makes it clear that we have indirect duties to animals, duties that are not toward them, but in regard to them insofar as our treatment of them can affect our duties to persons.

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. (Kant, LE, 240)

And one could argue the same would be true of those human beings who are not persons. We disrespect our humanity when we act in inhuman ways towards non-persons, whatever their species.

But this is unsatisfying—it fails to capture the independent wrong that is being done to the non-person. When someone rapes a woman in a coma, or whips a severely brain damaged child, or sets a cat on fire, they are not simply disrespecting humanity or themselves as representatives of it, they are wronging these non-persons. So, a second way to avoid the counter-intuitive conclusion is to argue that such non-persons stand in the proper relations to "rational nature" such that they should be thought of as morally considerable. Allen Wood (1998) argues in this way and suggests that all beings that potentially have a rational nature, or who virtually have it, or who have had it, or who have part of it, or who have the necessary conditions of it, what he calls "the infrastructure of rational nature", should be directly morally considerable. Insofar as a being stands in this relation to rational nature, they are the kinds of beings that can be wronged.

This response is not unlike that of noted animal rights proponent, Tom Regan, who argues that what is important for moral consideration are not the differences between humans and non-humans but the similarities. Regan argues that because persons share with certain non-persons (which includes those humans and non-humans who have a certain level of organized cognitive function) the ability to be experiencing subject of a life and to have an individual welfare that matters to them regardless of what others might think, both deserve moral consideration. Regan argues that subjects of a life

want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of … animals … they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own. (Regan, 1985)

A third response is simply to reject rational nature as the touchstone of moral considerability. This is the kind of direct argument that utilitarians have traditionally made. They argue that the truly morally important feature of beings is unappreciated when we focus on personhood or the rational, self-reflective nature of humans, or the relation a being stands in to such nature, or being the subject of a life. What is really important, utilitarians maintain, is the promotion of happiness, or pleasure, or the satisfaction of interests, and the avoidance of pain, or suffering, or frustration of interests. Bentham, one of the more forceful defenders of this "sentientist" view of moral considerability, famously wrote:

Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. [original emphasis] ... The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated ... upon the same footing as ... animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (Bentham 1781)

Contemporary utilitarians, such as Peter Singer (1990, 1993), suggest that there is no morally justifiable way to exclude from moral consideration non-humans or non-persons who can clearly suffer. Any being that has an interest in not suffering deserves to have that interest taken into account. And a non-human who acts to avoid pain can be thought to have just such an interest. Even contemporary Kantians have acknowledged the moral force of the experience of pain. Korsgaard, for example, writes "it is a pain to be in pain. And that is not a trivial fact" (1996, 154).

When you pity a suffering animal, it is because you are perceiving a reason. An animal's cries express pain, and they mean that there is a reason, a reason to change its conditions. And you can no more hear the cries of an animal as mere noise than you can the words of a person. Another animal can obligate you in exactly the same way another person can. …So of course we have obligations to animals. (Korsgaard, 1996, 153)

When we encounter an animal in pain we recognize their claim on us, and thus beings who can suffer are morally considerable.

2. The Moral Significance of Animals' Moral Claims

That non-human animals can make moral claims on us does not in itself indicate how such claims are to be assessed and conflicting claims adjudicated. Being morally considerable is like showing up on a moral radar screen—how strong the signal is or where it is located on the screen are separate questions. Of course, how one argues for the moral considerability of non-human animals will inform how we are to understand the force of an animal's claims.

According to the view that an animal's moral claim is equivalent to a moral right, any action that fails to treat the animal as a being with inherent worth would violate that animal's right and is thus morally objectionable. According to the animal rights position, to treat an animal as a means to some human end, as many humans do when they eat animals or experiment on them, is to violate that animal's right. As Tom Regan has written,

…animals are treated routinely, systematically as if their value were reducible to their usefulness to others, they are routinely, systematically treated with a lack of respect, and thus are their rights routinely, systematically violated. (Regan, 1985)

The animal rights position is an absolutist position. Any being that is a subject of a life has inherent worth and the rights that protect such worth, and all subjects of a life have these rights equally. Thus any practice that fails to respect the rights of those animals who have them, e.g. eating animals, hunting animals, experimenting on animals, using animals for entertainment, is wrong, irrespective of human need, context, or culture.

The utilitarian position on animals, most commonly associated with Peter Singer and popularly, though erroneously, referred to as an animal rights position, is actually quite distinct. Here the moral significance of the claims of animals depends on what other morally significant competing claims might be in play in any given situation. While the equal interests of all morally considerable beings are considered equally, the practices in question may end up violating or frustrating some interests but would not be considered morally wrong if, when all equal interests are considered, more of these interests are satisfied than frustrated. For utilitarians like Singer, what matters are the strength and nature of interests, not whose interests these are . So, if the only options available in order to save the life of one morally considerable being is to cause harm, but not death, to another morally considerable being, then according to a utilitarian position, causing this harm may be morally justifiable. Similarly, if there are two courses of action, one which causes extreme amounts of suffering and ultimate death, and one which causes much less suffering and painless death, then the latter would be morally preferable to the former.

Consider factory farming, the most common method used to convert animal bodies into relatively inexpensive food in industrialized societies today. An estimated 8 billion animals in the United States are born, confined, biologically manipulated, transported and ultimately slaughtered each year so that humans can consume them. The conditions in which these animals are raised and the method of slaughter causes vast amounts of suffering. (See, for example, Mason and Singer 1990.) Given that animals suffer under such conditions and assuming that suffering is not in their interests, then the practice of factory farming would only be morally justifiable if its abolition were to cause greater suffering or a greater amount of interest frustration. Certainly humans who take pleasure in eating animals will find it harder to satisfy these interests in the absence of factory farms; it may cost more and require more effort to obtain animal products. The factory farmers, and the industries that support factory farming, will also have certain interests frustrated if factory farming were to be abolished. How much interest frustration and interest satisfaction would be associated with the end to factory farming is largely an empirical question. But utilitarians are not making unreasonable predictions when they argue that on balance the suffering and interest frustration that animals experience in modern day meat production is greater than the suffering that humans would endure if they had to alter their current practices.

Importantly, the utilitarian argument for the moral significance of animal suffering in meat production is not an argument for vegetarianism. If an animal lived a happy life and was painlessly killed and then eaten by people who would otherwise suffer hunger or malnutrition by not eating the animal, then painlessly killing and eating the animal would be the morally justified thing to do. In many parts of the world where economic, cultural, or climate conditions make it virtually impossible for people to sustain themselves on plant based diets, killing and eating animals that previously led relatively unconstrained lives and are painlessly killed, would not be morally objectionable. The utilitarian position can thus avoid certain charges of cultural chauvinism and moralism, charges that the animal rights position apparently cannot avoid.

It might be objected that to suggest that it is morally acceptable to hunt and eat animals for those people living in arctic regions, or for nomadic cultures, or for poor rural peoples, for example, is to potentially condone painlessly killing other morally considerable beings, like humans, for food consumption in similar situations. If violating the rights of an animal can be morally tolerated, especially a right to life, then similar rights violations can be morally tolerated. In failing to recognize the inviolability of the moral claims of all morally considerable beings, utilitarianism cannot accommodate one of our most basic prima facie principles, namely that killing a morally considerable being is wrong.

There are at least two replies to this sort of objection. The first appeals to the negative side effects that killing may promote. If, to draw on an overused and sadly sophomoric counter-example, one person can be kidnapped and painlessly killed in order to provide body parts for four individuals who will die without them, there will inevitably be negative side-effects that all things considered would make the kidnapping wrong. Healthy people, knowing they could be used for spare parts, might make themselves unhealthy to avoid such a fate or they may have so much stress and fear that the overall state of affairs would be worse than that in which four people died. Appealing to side-effects when it comes to the wrong of killing is certainly plausible, but it fails to capture what is directly wrong with killing.

A more satisfying reply would have us adopt what might be called a multi-factor perspective, one that takes into account the kinds of interest that are possible for certain kinds of morally considerable beings, the content of interests of the beings in question, their relative weight, and the context of those who have them. Consider a seal who has spent his life freely roaming the oceans and ice flats and who is suddenly and painless killed to provide food for a human family struggling to survive a bitter winter in far northern climes. While it is probably true that the seal had an immediate interest in avoiding suffering, it is less clear that the seal has a future directed interest in continued existence. If the seal lacks this future directed interest, then painlessly killing him does not violate this interest. The same cannot be said for the human explorer who finds himself face to face with a hungry Inuit family. Persons generally have interests in continued existence, interests that, arguably, non-persons do not have. So one factor that can be appealed to is that non-persons may not have the range of interests that persons do.

An additional factor is the type of interest in question. We can think of interests as scalar; crucial interests are weightier than important interests, important interests are weightier than replaceable interests, and all are weightier than trivial interests or mere whims. When there is a conflict of interests, crucial interests will always override important interests, important interests will always override replaceable interests, etc. So if an animal has an interest in not suffering, which is arguably a crucial interest, or at least an important one, and a person has an interest in eating that animal when there are other things to eat, meaning that interest is replaceable, then the animal has the stronger interest and it would be wrong to violate that interest by killing the animal for food if there is another source of food available.

Often, however, conflicts of interests are within the same category. The Inuit's interest in food is crucial and the explorer's interest in life is crucial. If we assume that the explorer cannot otherwise provide food for the hunter, then it looks as if there is a conflict within the same category. If you take the interests of an indigenous hunter's whole family into account, then their combined interest in their own survival appears to outweigh the hapless explorer's interest in continued existence. Indeed, if painlessly killing and eating the explorer were the only way for the family to survive, then perhaps this action would be morally condoned. But this is a rather extreme sort of example, one in which even our deepest held convictions are strained. So it is quite hard to know what to make of the clash between what a utilitarian would condone and what our intuitions tell us we should believe here. Our most basic prima facie principles arise and are accepted under ordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances are precisely those in which such principles or precepts give way.[2]

The multi-factor utilitarian perspective is particularly helpful when considering the use of animals in medical research. According to the animal rights position, the use of animals in experimental procedures is a clear violation of their rights—they are being used as a mere means to some possible end—and thus animal rights proponents are in favor of the abolition of all laboratory research. The utilitarian position, particularly one that incorporates some kind of multi-factor perspective, might allow some research on animals under very specific conditions. Before exploring what a utilitarian might condone in the way of animal experimentation, let us first quickly consider what would be morally prohibited. All research that involves invasive procedures, constant confinement, and ultimate death can be said to violate the animal's crucial interests. Thus any experiments that are designed to enhance the important, replaceable, or trivial interests of humans or other animals would be prohibited. That would mean that experiments for cosmetics or household products are prohibited, as there are non-animal tested alternatives and many options already available for consumers. Experiments to determine the effects of recreational drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol would also be prohibited. Certain psychological experiments, such as those in which infant primates are separated from their mothers and exposed to frightening stimuli in an effort to understand problems teenagers have when they enter high school, would also come into question. There are manyexamples of experiments that violate an animal's crucial interests in the hopes of satisfying the lesser interests of some other morally considerable being, all of which would be objectionable from this perspective.

There are some laboratory experiments, however, that from a multi-factor utilitarian perspective may be permitted. These are experiments in which the probability of satisfying crucial or important interests for many who suffer from some debilitating or fatal disease is high, and the numbers of non-human animals who's crucial interests are violated is low. The psychological complexity of the non-humans may also be significant in determining whether the experiment is morally justified. In the case of experimenting in these limited number of cases, presumably a parallel argument could be made about experimenting on humans. If the chances are very high that experimenting on one human, who is a far superior experimental animal when it comes to human disease, can prevent great suffering or death in many humans, then the utilitarian may, if side effects are minimal, condone such an experiment. Of course, it is easier to imagine this sort of extreme case in the abstract, what a utilitarian would think actually morally justified, again depends on the specific empirical data.

In sum, the animal rights position takes the significance of morally considerable claims to be absolute. Thus, any use of animals that involves a disregard for their moral claims is problematic. The significance of an animal's morally considerable interests according to a utilitarian is variable. Whether an action is morally justified or permissible will depend on a number of factors. The utilitarian position on animals would condemn a large number of practices that involve the suffering and death of billions of animals, but there are cases in which some use of non-human animals, and perhaps even human animals, may be morally justified.

3. Alternative Perspectives on Human Relations to Other Animals

Given the long- standing view that non-humans are mere things, there are still many who reject the arguments presented here for the moral considerability of non-humans and the significance of their interests. Nonetheless, most now realize that the task of arguing that humans have a unique and exclusive moral status is rather difficult. However, even amongst those who do view animals as within the sphere of moral concern, there is disagreement about the nature and usefulness of the arguments presented on behalf of the moral status of animals.

Some, in the neo-Aristotelian or "virtue ethics" tradition, have argued that while our behavior towards animals is indeed subject to moral scrutiny, the kinds of arguments that have been presented frame the issues in the wrong way. According to many in this tradition, rational argumentation fails to capture those features of moral experience that allow us to really see why treating animals badly is wrong. The point, according to commentators such as Stephen R.L. Clark and Cora Diamond, for example, is that members of our communities, however we conceive of them, pull on us and it is in virtue of this indescribable pull that we recognize what is wrong with cruelty. Animals are individuals with whom we share a common life and this recognition allows us to see them as they are. A person striving for virtue comes to see that eating animals is wrong not because it is a violation of the animal's rights or because on balance such an act creates more suffering than other acts, but rather because in eating animals or using them in other harmful ways, we do not display the traits of character that kind, sensitive, compassionate, mature, and thoughtful members of a moral community should display. And carefully worked out arguments in which the moral considerability and moral significance of animals are laid out will have little if any grip on our thoughts and actions. Rather, by perceiving the attitudes that underlie the use and abuse of non-human animals as shallow or cruel, one interested in living a virtuous life will change their attitudes and come to reject treating animals as food or tools for research. As Rosalind Hursthouse recognized after having been exposed to alternative ways of seeing animals:[3]

I began to see [my attitudes] that related to my conception of flesh-foods as unnecessary, greedy, self-indulgent, childish, my attitude to shopping and cooking in order to produce lavish dinner parties as parochial, gross, even dissolute. I saw my interest and delight in nature programmes about the lives of animals on television and my enjoyment of meat as side by side at odds with one another…Without thinking animals had rights, I began to see both the wild ones and the ones we usually eat as having lives of their own, which they should be left to enjoy. And so I changed. My perception of the moral landscape and where I and the other animals were situated in it shifted. (Hursthouse, 2000, 165-166)

Feminists too have taken issue with the methods of argumentation used to establish the moral status of animals. For many feminists the traditional methods of rational argumentation fail to take into account the feelings of sympathy or empathy that humans have towards non-humans, feelings they believe are central to a full account of what we owe non-humans and why. While many feminists believe, following Hume, that our moral emotions are what ultimately move us to act compassionately towards animals, they do not reject the conclusions that the rights-based theorists or the utilitarian theorists draw. Rather, their criticisms are directed at the idea that these conclusions, drawn through reason alone, can change our behaviors. (See Adams and Donovan 1995.)

Some ecological feminists have also argued that the standard approaches to determining the moral status of animals are flawed. For these critics, the focus on individuals in isolation from their context fails to capture the political structures, particularly the structures of power, that underlie current practices in which animals are used. According to some eco-feminists there is a conceptual link between the "logic of domination" that operates to reinforce sexism and the logic that supports the oppression of non-human animals, a link that translates into individual and institutional practices that are harmful to both women and animals. Gender hierarchies, in which men are thought to be separate from and superior to women share the same structure, according to this analysis, as hierarchies that separate humans from other animals and justify human dominance over the allegedly inferior others. According to an ecological feminist perspective, differences between groups and individuals can be acknowledged without attributing greater or lesser moral worth to those groups or individuals within them and just social relations require that such valuations be avoided. Like many social justice perspectives, the eco-feminist perspective maintains that no one will be free unless everyone is free, and that includes non-human animals. (See, for example, Gaard 1993.)

Taking Animals Seriously  http://www.hedweb.com/animals/c0.htm    

Mental Life and Moral Status by  David DeGrazia
(ISBN 0-521-56760-2)

"As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behaviour toward creatures, all men were Nazis"
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Most people who approach Taking Animals Seriously will share an unspoken presupposition. This is that animal activists take animals too seriously. They lack a sense of proportion. It's not that gratuitous cruelty to members of other species is morally defensible. Surely it isn't. If pressed, then all but the amoral, sociopathic or philosophically bewitched are likely to grant that wanton animal-abuse is best discouraged. Instead, the pervasive assumption is simply that animal suffering doesn't really matter much compared to the things that happen to human beings - to us. They, after all, are only animals: objects rather than our fellow subjects. Animal consciousness, insofar as it exists at all, is minimal and uninteresting.

        Contrast one's likely reaction on learning that the infant or toddler next door is being abused. Let's suppose that the abuse is being inflicted for fun or profit - or, more broadly, for purposes that can be described only as frivolous. In such a case, then one's intuitions are equally clear. The suffering of the victim has to be taken very seriously. One has a duty actively to prevent it. The interests of the child take precedence over the wishes of the abuser. In extreme cases, the adults involved in persistent abuse may need to be legally restrained or even locked up. Indeed, it is cases of failure on our part to take action to prevent it - or failure to take action by the social services or child-protection agencies - that demand justification. To treat the suffering caused by child-abuse lightly would be to show a sense of disproportion when confronted with the nature of the practices involved - and our capacity to do something about them.

        Yet here lies the crux.

        After Darwin, a huge and accumulating convergence of physiological, behavioural, genetic and evolutionary evidence suggests - but cannot prove - an appalling possibility. This is that hundreds of millions of the non-human victims of our actions are functionally akin - intellectually, emotionally and in their capacity to suffer - to very young humans. In the light of what we're doing to our victims, the consequences of their also being ethically akin to human babies or toddlers would be awful; in fact, almost too ghastly to think about.

        When we're confronted with such an emotive parallel, all sorts of psychological denial and defence-mechanisms are likely to kick in. Undoubtedly, too, animal-exploitation makes our lives so much more convenient. Not surprisingly, in view of what we're doing to them, there is a powerful incentive for us as humans to rationalise our actions.

         Numerous pretexts and rationalisations aimed at legitimating animal exploitation are certainly available; most of them seek to magnify the gulf between "us" and "them". Intellectually, however, they prove on examination to be surprisingly thin.

        Some of the alleged differences between "them" and "us" are entirely spurious: humans alone have souls, we are asked to believe, or enduring metaphysical egos. Other inter-species are genuine. There are the dissimilarities of gross physical appearance; the neuroanatomy of Broca and Wernicke's areas; the capacity of certain mature humans to define allegedly reciprocal notions of right and duty; or perhaps the elaborate network of social relationships in which typical human child-rearing practices are situated. Human babies and veal calves aren't literally carbon-copies of each other. Nor is the development of an individual organism just a fast-forward re-run of evolutionary history. So pace Haeckel, it's not simply the case that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". Yet once one accepts that inflicting readily avoidable suffering per se is morally wrong, then it is questionable how such differences that do exist between human and (at least) advanced vertebrate non-human beings are morally relevant differences.

        This argument isn't likely to sway the radical sceptic about animal consciousness. For in trying to appraise the sentience of other living beings - even one's adult fellow humans - it is notoriously hard to prove anything at all. The price of intellectual rigour, however, is a morally frivolous solipsism-of-the-here-and-now. Without merely begging the question, there's simply no logically compelling ground - just Santayana's "blind animal faith" - for believing that anything exists beyond the contents of this current frame of consciousness. Yet one wouldn't, for instance, let an (ostensibly) floundering toddler drown in a pond on the grounds of one's rational incapacity to penetrate beyond the veil of perception, devise a satisfactory theory of meaning, or prove the veridicality of memory, etc. Nor would one let the toddler perish because one intellectually believed that value-judgements were subjective and ethical claims truth-valueless. For when the consequences of being wrong are so terrible, then ethically one just has to play safe.

         In this review essay, at least, the more radical forms of philosophical scepticism about mind - though not about ethics - will simply be set aside. Such neglect may be justified on the grounds that if one were the proverbial brain-in-a-vat etc, then no harm would come from acting (pseudo-)morally; albeit no good either.

        Instead, rather than attempting to defeat the sceptic, a less counter-intuitive and naturalistic metaphysic will simply be assumed. Reality is indeed outlandishly weird in some of its properties. Yet there actually is a mind-independent world populated by embodied fellow subjects of experience; if there isn't, then one is harmlessly talking to oneself. Within the mind-independent world, there are fellow creatures who suffer, sometimes quite horribly. And granted merely that functionally equivalent young humans do sometimes suffer intensely, it seems overwhelmingly probable [see below] that the non-humans we treat as disposable objects of our convenience suffer horribly from what we do to them as well. If it can defensibly be argued that it's inherently morally wrong to harm and kill small children, then by parity of reasoning it is morally wrong to harm and kill functionally equivalent non-human victims too. To argue otherwise, it would be necessary either to dispute the premise, or alternatively to show that there are morally relevant differences between any human and any non-human which license our inconsistent attitudes and behaviour towards the two groups.

        Radical scepticism again aside, one might still hope, usually on unspecified grounds, that the neurochemical substrates that mediate pain, anxiety and terror in humans may mediate a providentially different texture of experience in our fellow vertebrates - or perhaps some sort of low-grade sentience which we don't seriously have to bother about. Once again, one can't prove that they don't. Perhaps the astonishing evolutionary conservation of neurochemical pathways which underlie nociception ["pain-perception"] construed in a narrowly physiological sense - involving serotonin, the periaquaductal grey matter, bradykinin, ATP receptors, the major opioid families, substance P etc - may amount to a wildly misleading coincidence; or are part of a spooky conspiracy designed to mislead us. Or again, perhaps the kinds of aversive experience that non-humans undergo are still rather dull and dim - akin to some of our own aches or itches. They may be a bit unpleasant, but they're scarcely of deep moral consequence.

        Yet not merely is this type of optimistic - or self-servingly sceptical - perspective radically non-Darwinian. It also violates the principle of the uniformity of Nature. The uniformity of Nature is a principle that admittedly flies under numerous variant formulations. It undoubtedly lends itself to all manner of philosophico-scientific subtleties. Yet complications aside, the existence of some sort of constancy of natural law is an assumption on which any non-sceptical account of human knowledge - or even mutually intelligible discourse - depends. So the onus of proof is on someone who seeks to deny some such basic uniformity - or makes an ad hoc exception just in the realm of the organic physiology of consciousness - to explain why the principle allegedly breaks down precisely at the most morally expedient place for homo sapiens.

        Now the idea that our descendants might regard our treatment of the creatures we hunt, butcher and factory-farm today in the sort of light we ourselves regard the abuse of human infants is - to typical Western scientific minds at least - intuitively absurd. At face value, it just isn't credible. Animal-abusers and child-abusers occupy radically different categories in our scheme of things. Yet this hypothesised gulf rests fundamentally on intuition; not on argument. Over the millennia, it has been genetically adaptive for us to exploit other creatures. Using them as expendable objects has helped strands of human self-replicating DNA leave lots more copies of itself ("maximise its inclusive fitness"). The very "naturalness" and adaptiveness of animal-exploitation, however, serves as a reason for us to trust our moral intuitions and their verbal rationalisations less, not more. For the wells of rationality have been poisoned from the outset. Our capacity for fair judgement is biochemically corruptible and genetically corrupted. Other things being equal, genes promoting a capacity for self-serving rationalisation will tend to get differentially favoured over those promoting impartial detachment. The literally self-centred nature of our individual virtual worlds - for we each live in a self-assembled neuronal VR world grotesquely focused on one egocentric body-image - attests to the technically defined selfish character of DNA-driven consciousness. In consequence of this inbuilt distortion, the 'reflective equilibrium' sought after by fans of ethical common-sense neglects the systematic genetic biases coded into the mechanisms by which our intuitions are formed. Such biases leave our intuitions, and the consequences we extract from them, even less dependable than intuitive folk-physics. Ethically, we simply can't be trusted; or trust ourselves.

        For if several hundred million human toddlers or babies were abused and killed each year - for food, fun, or scientific curiosity - then the compelling moral urgency of the animal issue would be undeniable. We'd find it hard to dispute the moral crisis - unless habit had made us so wholly desensitised to what we were doing that the mass-slaughter of human youngsters, too, had become "natural". In fact, our intermittent moral anguish over the surgical abortion of embryos/foetuses/unborn human children shows we are not always blind to the interests of the weak and defenceless; and our victims within the womb are neurologically and psychologically far less developed than the victims of our last meal. Perhaps the best hope of a revolutionary change in human attitudes to the victims of our ongoing animal holocaust is a dawning recognition on the part of many millions of people. This is that our current ethical stance to non-humans isn't just morally wrong but intellectually incoherent.

        So much for the rationale for this sort of book - and this review.

        David DeGrazia's treatise is an uneasy but impressive mixture of ethics, meta-ethics and scientifically-informed analytic philosophy of mind. It is a work of scholarship in the best sense. Not once, in spite of his obvious intensity of feeling and sense of the moral urgency of the issues, did I notice him slipping into overheated rhetoric or polemics.

        Actually, the issue isn't that simple. Fastidious restraint in one's language is sometimes a mixed blessing, even for the purposes of intellectual comprehension rather than advocacy. This is because moral apathy, the widespread sense that one's victims don't need taking seriously, is always easy if one doesn't really grasp the nature of what one is talking about. Clinically descriptive text is only more faithful to reality than its value-laden emotive counterpart if coolness of prose more accurately conveys to the reader what is really being described. And generally it doesn't. Vivisection experiments in medical journals, for example, are written up with practised, peer-sanctioned deceit. Academic philosophical treatments of animal-abuse are less Orwellian. Nonetheless, they commonly retreat into the abstruse in-house theory of rights and duties. Soon they clog up with dense layers of abstraction. This may be unavoidable; but the trouble with academic formality of language is that its remoteness from the raw immediacies of suffering hides how bad that suffering really is; and the desperate moral urgency of doing something to stop it.

        Our own semantic competence, then, shouldn't be taken for granted. Don't assume that you straightforwardly know what you're thinking and talking about if you assume that the suffering of various categories of other beings doesn't matter. By way of analogy, we'd recognise that someone who has seen only black-and white picture postcards of, say, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, hasn't really grasped the nature of Van Gogh's painting. The difference between a small grey postcard and the original masterpiece is so vast that one couldn't trust the artistic judgement of someone who has only experienced the former to pass judgement on the latter. (S)He wouldn't know what he was saying. Yet we're far more ready to grant that someone can grasp the content of - and thus potentially pass moral judgement on - what is meant by, for instance, 'factory farming', 'slaughterhouse methods', or 'veal crates', even though they've merely read a piece of text (nominally) about it. The morally dangerous presumption of semantic competence is widespread and implicit even though the words of abuse themselves evoke only an inadequate mild unease or distaste. Such rarefied sentiments cannot possibly capture or evoke the felt horror of what takes place from the perspective of the victim.

        For perspectival facts and subjective "raw feels" are an objective feature of Reality; even though we don't scientifically understand why they exist. Without them, nothing could matter - whether to itself or to anything else. If we the abusers could apprehend the horrors we perpetrate on the abused as fellow subjects rather than ill-conceived objects, then we couldn't be so complacent about what we're doing. But the world isn't like that. Worse, the victim's viewpoint isn't a perspective with which most of us even try to empathise - not even for a few seconds. Who cares? Get a life! Alas, the culture of abuse is just too pervasive.

        To a large extent, we are in any case deliberately shielded from what we're paying for. Our willing complicity - and sometimes wilful failure of the imagination - doubtless contributes to the still prevalent sense that what we're doing to other life-forms doesn't in truth matter all that much. So it's worth quoting - however unrepresentative they are of DeGrazia's book as a whole - from the only two pages in Taking Animals Seriously which really begin to hint at what happens in contemporary animal husbandry.

        Since World War Two, traditional family farms have largely gone out of business. They have been superseded by what's blandly known as factory-farming. Factory-farms seek to raise as many animals as possible in the smallest possible space in order to maximise profits. The single-minded pursuit of profit has the corollary that animals are nothing but meat-producing objects. They have been overwhelmingly treated as such. Here is DeGrazia talking about the fate of the 100 million mammals and 5 billion birds slaughtered annually in the USA alone:

"After hatching broiler chickens are moved to enclosed sheds containing automatic feeders and waterers. From 10 000 to 75 000 birds are kept in a single shed, which becomes increasingly crowded as they grow at an abnormally fast rate. Crowding often leads to cannibalism and other aggressive behaviors; another occurrence is panic-driven piling on top of each other, sometimes causing suffocation. Concerns about the possibility of aggression have led many farmers to debeak their chickens, apparently through sensitive tissue. By slaughter time, chickens have as little as six tenths of a square-foot apiece. There is typically little ventilation, and the never-cleaned droppings produce an air thick with ammonia, dust and bacteria."

"Laying hens live their lives in "battery" cages made entirely of wire. Cages are so crowded that hens can seldom fully stretch their wings; debeaking is common practice to limit the damage of the hens' pecking cagemates. For hours before laying an egg, a hen, deprived of any nest, paces anxiously amid the mob; at egg laying time, she must stand on a sloped, uncomfortable wire floor that precludes the instinctual behaviors of scratching, dust bathing, and pecking for food. Unnatural conditions, lack of normal exercise and demands for high egg production cause bone weakness. Some hens undergo forced molting, stimulated by up to twelve days without food. When considered spent, hens are stuffed into crates and transported in uncovered trucks for slaughter; during handling and transport, many (over two thirds in one study) incur broken bones. Laying hens and broiler chickens have the same fate; They are shackled upside down, fully conscious, on conveyor belts before their throats are cut by an automated knife. (Hens' brothers have short lives due to their commercial uselessness. After hatching, they are dumped into plastic sacks and left to suffocate, or ground up while still alive to make feed for their sisters.)"

"Hogs, a highly intelligent and social species, have virtually nothing to do in factory farms except stand up, lie down, eat and sleep. Usually deprived of straw and other sources of amusement, and separated from each other by iron bars in small crates, hogs appear to suffer greatly from boredom. Sometimes they amuse themselves by biting a tail in the next crate. Industry's increasingly common response is to cut off their tails - a procedure that, like castration of males, is usually done without anesthesia. Hogs stand on either wire mesh, slatted floors, or concrete floors - all highly unnatural footings. Poor ventilation and accumulated waste products cause powerful fumes. Hogs are often abused at the loading and unloading stage of transport, particularly at the slaughterhouse. Rough handling sometimes includes the use of whips and electrical 'hot shots'."

"Veal calves are probably worse off than other farm animals. Shortly after birth, they are taken from their mothers and transported considerable distances - often with rough handling, exposure to the elements, and no food or rest. At the veal barn, they are confined in solitary crates too small to allow them to turn round or even sleep in a natural position. Denied solid food and water, they are given a liquid milk replacer deficient in iron (in order to produce the gourmet white flesh), resulting in anemia. Because it is drunk from buckets, rather than suckled, the liquid food often enters the rumen rather than the true stomach, causing diarrhea and indigestion. The combination of deprivations sometimes results in such neurotic behaviors as sucking the boards of crates and stereotyped tongue-rolling."

"Like their veal-calf siblings, many dairy cows, as calves, never receive colostrum - the milk produced by their mothers which helps to fight diseases. More and more they are confined either indoors or in overcrowded drylots (which have no grass). Unanesthetised tail docking is increasingly performed. In order to produce some twenty times the amount of milk a calf would need, dairy cows are fed a diet heavy in grain - as distinct from the roughages for which their digestive tracts are suited - creating health problems that include painful lameness and metabolic disorders, which are exacerbated by confinement. About half U.S. dairy cows at any one time have mastitis, a painful udder. Many cows today are given daily injections of Bovine Growth Hormone to stimulate additional growth and increase milk production (despite a surplus of dairy products). Although their natural life span is about twenty to twenty-five years, at about age four, dairy cows become unable to maintain production levels and are transported for slaughter. Most processed beef comes from them."

"Cattle raised specifically for beef are, on the whole, better off than the other farm animals already described. Many of the cattle get to roam in the outdoors for about six months. Then they are transported long distances to feedlots, where they are fattened up on grain rather than grass. Craving roughage, the cattle often lick their own and other cattle's coats; the hair that enters the rumen sometimes causes abscesses. Most feedlots do not confine intensively. Their major sources of distress are the boredom likely to result from a barren environment, unrelieved exposure to the elements, dehorning (which cuts through arteries and other tissue), branding, the cutting of ears into special shapes for identification purposes, and unanesthetized castration (which involves pinning the animal, cutting his scrotum, and ripping out each testicle)."

"Transporting hogs and cattle for slaughter - which can entail up to three days without food, water, or rest - typically results in conspicuous weight loss and other signs of deprivation. The slaughtering process itself is likely to cause fear. The animals are transported on a conveyor belt or goaded up a ramp in the stench of their fellows' blood. In the best of circumstances, animals are rendered unconscious by a captive-bolt gun or electric shock before their throats are slit."

        This horrible suffering occurs, one has to remind oneself, primarily because we enjoy the taste of meat; and because our appetites are financially profitable.

Human Life and Cat Life: Not The Same in Humanist Ethics


Here’s the situation: Your beloved cat and somebody you recognize as a known criminal have both somehow fallen into a lake and will drown if you don’t take immediate action. They are so far apart you realize that if you go to save one, the other will not survive. Which life would you expect the humanist to save?

This choice between preserving a human life and that of a cat may seem at first to be a real no-brainer. Everybody knows humans, even flawed ones, are more important than cats, even cute ones, right? Wrong! As a matter of fact, the argument in favor of saving the cat at the cost of a human life was presented in an article in The Humanist magazine by a frequent contributor.

The article to which I refer appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of The Humanist. Written by Barbara Dority, president of the Humanists of Washington, this piece was entitled Humanism and Evolutionary Humility. While I have admired many of the articles Dority has written for The Humanist, I found a number of difficulties in this piece. To arrive at the conclusion that felines may take priority over humans, she argues that humanism views Homo sapiens as just another animal among the many that populate the earth. Starting from a well-founded concern for the ecology and the preservation of endangered species, Dority concludes that humanism’s involvement with these issues has been "inadequate" and states that, "it is time to clarify its position on this fundamental subject." Dority’s "clarification" features the dislocation of humanity from its central position in our ethical system. This ethical re-orientation has startling implications, and, contrary to Dority’s claims, does not accurately represent mainstream humanist thinking.

Allow me to provide a little background. Dority, my wife Olga Bourlin, and I have engaged in a dialogue for some months concerning a specific ethical dilemma originally presented by Gerry Bruder, a columnist for the Secular Humanist Press, a quarterly publication edited by Dority. Bruder proposed that, being liberated from rigid ethical guidelines imposed by religious belief systems, he would feel justified in valuing the life of his dog over that of a human. He specifically stated that if he found himself in a situation where he could save the life of either his dog or a stranger, he would choose his dog. I found this position to be inconsistent with every interpretation of humanism that I had ever encountered, and both Olga and I wrote articles critical of Bruder’s position on a number of counts. Dority supported Bruder, and further developed the argument that relative to other creatures, humans held no special position in humanist ethics that would preclude sacrificing their lives to save favored animals. It was this thesis that she presented in her article in The Humanist.

In addition to our correspondence with Dority, Olga and I presented our views in several issues of the Secular Humanist Press. By this process we became two of the "few humanists" that Barbara said in her article, "could do with a dose of ecological and evolutionary humility."

At the heart of this issue is the very definition of humanism. Dority attempts to draw some distinction between humanist ethics, in which she acknowledges that human concerns are foremost, and the humanist world-view, in which she suggests that humans are not superior to animals. This latter conception of humans as the equals of animals is employed to resolve Dority’s cat-lover version of Bruder’s dilemma, substituting her cat for Bruder’s drowning dog, and a "despicable" human in place of a stranger.


Final Score



Cute Kitty


A couple of questions immediately leap forth: If humans are not in some very important way more valued than animals ("superior," if you will), why are they the central concern of humanist ethics? More importantly, how can a humanist acknowledge that human welfare is the central ethical value, then state that a cat’s life may have more value than a person’s?

Animals versus People: The Humanistic View

Although the cat-versus-human scenario she proposes is a classic ethical dilemma, Dority performs no specific ethical analysis. Instead she builds a case for her contention that humans "have [no] right to destroy or circumvent the evolutionary potential of another life form." Some aspects of this argument fall well within our expectations for a modern, enlightened view of humanity’s relationship with nature. For instance, Dority states that, "If the welfare of bears or gorillas or lions or the like must be improved in order to prevent the annihilation of their species, and those necessary measures reduce the welfare and quality of life for some humans – then, yes, I do believe that the welfare of these animals is more important than the welfare of some people." Many humanists would agree with such a statement in general terms. Indeed, in the case of preserving some predatory species such as grizzly bears, wolves and alligators, there will certainly be some price to be paid in human lives. The difference is that Dority appears to consider the welfare of endangered species as an end unto itself. The conventional humanist would justify a small loss of human life as an acceptable cost of improving the quality of our environment for the benefit of all.

Apparently the relative character traits of the cat and the human are significant to Dority’s resolution of this ethical dilemma. Dority would favor a supposedly virtuous animal over some humans, saying, "I could never let that guileless little animal drown in order to save any number of thoroughly despicable humans." Beyond the implication that the cat is somehow more morally sound than the human, the rationale for this rather surprising statement is not fully developed, and does not seem to flow from some of the other commentary concerning the value of endangered species. Cats are certainly not endangered. In fact, some might say that our society would benefit if there were fewer cats. While the traditional humanist would weigh the personal and societal consequences of each alternative, Dority instead explains to us only how much the cat means to her personally, telling us that she loves her cat and the various pleasures this animal provides her, pointing out that, "She’s perfectly beautiful, talks to me in tiny mews, and goes to sleep with me most nights." There may be more to Dority’s thinking on this issue, but from what is revealed in the article the only thing we have to justify the remarkable decision to value a cat over a human being is the distaste she feels for some persons versus the love she has for her cats. Although Dority does say that her cat "talks" and is "guileless," there seems to be no real claim that this animal bears any of the traits ethicists have identified in some apes and cetaceans and which some would argue qualify them for special consideration. In other words, the entire issue boils down to which alternative provides Dority and her cat more pleasure or less pain. Humanistic ethical evaluations, however, measure the effects of an action on people other than the person committing the act. It is more than simply determining the preferred effect upon a single individual.

Perhaps Dority, by specifying a "despicable" human as the victim of her preference for her cat, was inferring some social benefit if this person were, in effect, executed. Essentially this could be viewed as the same rationale which would be put forth in justifying capital punishment. From a humanist perspective, therefore, the dilemma would have been misstated, since the benefit of saving a cat’s life would be inconsequential, even if the cat happens to be really, really cute. The argument would center around whether the death of this despicable individual would benefit society, rather than whether the death would be permitted to benefit a cat. Many would argue that there is no benefit to society which would justify the taking of a human life, but at least this discussion would be focused upon elements that have more ethical significance than the cuteness of an animal or the enjoyment derived by its owner. Killing "despicable" individuals for the supposed benefit of society is widely practiced, and, under certain specific circumstances, has support among not a few humanists.

Is "Evolutionary Humility" Consistent with Humanism?

Dority’s efforts to create parity between humans and animals focus on the naturalistic aspects of the humanist world-view. Dority comments that, "classifying ourselves as superior is a highly biased view," and suggests that, "highly evolved brains may prove to be – in the larger context of Earth history – an evolutionary mistake." But do these views really reflect humanist thinking?

On the one hand, Dority admits that humanism "is focused on a concern for the human condition." This concession would seem to settle the issue, but Dority then goes on to characterize humanism as, "distinguish(ing) between naturalism and supernaturalism, not between humans and other living things." The first part of this statement is true, but that does not imply the accuracy of the second point. We already have terms such as "materialist" to define those who see the natural world as all there is. Humanism goes beyond merely rejecting the supernatural and posits a philosophical orientation that is not just focused on the natural world, but specifically on human welfare.

According to Dority, humanism makes no claims for human superiority, although she never explains why humanist ethics repeatedly stresses "human" welfare when some more general term might have been used. Dority asserts, "it is a huge leap from any definition of humanism I’ve ever encountered to the assertion that humans are superior to all other living things." While a strong case may be made that humans are in many ways inferior to other animals in specific ways, in the context of humanist ethics, humans are undoubtedly regarded as superior. Perhaps the dearth of explicit commentary on the superiority of humanity is attributable to an assumption that on this basic issue there need be little discussion. Writers often avoid statements of the obvious. However, it is not difficult to find writings which clearly imply where humanist philosophers stand on this issue. For instance, in Paul Kurtz’s book Forbidden Fruit, The Ethics of Humanism, Kurtz dismisses those who would demand vegetarianism on moral grounds, saying, "We need not take such a radical position, for, as omnivores, humans have historically been hunters and gatherers, and the production of meat has become such an integral part of the world economy that the food supply of large portions of the world would be at stake." In refuting those who object to use of animals for medical experiments, Kurtz says, "such research may be vital on utilitarian grounds for the health of the human species." (p. 195) It therefore appears obvious that Kurtz accepts the superiority of humans.

Dority would have us believe that humanism is neutral regarding her cat-versus-human dilemma, commenting, "humanists rely on individual reflection and independent choice to formulate their own ethical standards and moral judgments . . .our philosophy doesn’t mandate a proper humanist choice." If the choice between the life of a cat and the life of a human cannot be resolved by the application of humanist ethics, then certainly some religionists are correct and humanists have no ethics worth discussing. Fortunately that is not the case. Dority’s characterization implies that humanist ethics is subjective. If this is her intent, it is not supported by any mainline humanist philosopher. Kurtz specifically rules out subjectivism, saying, "Ethical principles are not simply subjective emotional attitudes or states unamenable to any critical justification." (ibid., p. 72) The precise configuration of humanist ethics may be up for debate, but we can at least say that the human condition is its main concern. Therefore while it may be true that ultimately we all do make our own moral decisions, these decisions can be evaluated in light of established humanist standards. Humanist standards are not absolutist, but that is not to say that concepts such as rights, duties and values have no specific meaning to the humanist. These standards are designed to serve human welfare. How is it possible to construct a humanist ethical system that does not? And if it is true that humanists make up their own moral standards as they go along, how can there be said to be any identifiable humanist morality?

Humanist literature can be used to guide us in resolving Dority’s dilemma, and here we will find the unique position of humanity repeated over and over. To quote Frederick Edwords, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, "We measure the value of a given choice by how it affects human life, and in this we include our individual selves, our families, our society, and the peoples of the earth" (The Humanist Philosophy In Perspective - 1984). This does not preclude placing a high value on animal life and welfare - but not higher than human life. Dority’s citations from Edwords and Corliss Lamont express an appreciation for nature and humanity’s place within it, but do not by any means suggest that humanity is not the central concern of humanism. For instance, as Dority pointed out, in his book The Philosophy of Humanism Lamont observes, "The universe of Nature shows no favoritism toward humans or any other of its creatures," yet earlier in this volume Lamont had explicitly cited human welfare as the chief focus of humanism, saying, "The supreme ethical aim of Humanism is, in fact, the this-earthly well-being of all mankind." Lamont further elaborates (p. 241), "Humanism believes that in ethical training . . .equal emphasis should be laid on the individual’s relation to society, his unending debt to the collective culture of mankind and his corresponding obligation to serve the common good." This single-minded concern for human welfare is critical to any definition of humanism. Certainly this is why we call it "humanism." Therefore ethical systems which do not value human welfare above all else may perhaps be materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic or even hedonistic, but cannot be fairly termed humanistic by any conventional measure.

The Flawed Concept of Speciesism

Dority uses the term "speciesism" to refer to the notion of human superiority, saying, " Speciesism is often justified by claims that other sentient beings don’t feel pain or have emotions or intelligence or courage as we do. (Need we remind ourselves that this kind of thinking caused otherwise decent people to support slavery?)" This analogy of speciesism to racism is invalid, and actually insulting. Believing that dogs and cats don’t have emotions, courage and intelligence as do humans is nothing like thinking that black people don’t possess these qualities. Recognizing the falsehood that Africans were less than fully human should not blind us to the fact that there are "lower" animals who do not have consciousness or self-awareness, much less such concepts as time, death, morality and altruism. Perhaps there are non-human species out there that do possess these traits, and, to some extent, certain animals may approach, though not very closely, humanity in some of these characteristics. To the extent that other species do to some degree achieve such distinguishing qualities as self-awareness, their position in our moral calculations is enhanced. In this sense our obligation is not so much to our species, per se, but rather to other thinking, moral creatures.

Any moral system that does not somehow distinguish between species would be virtually impracticable since "speciesism" is such an integral part of nature. Indeed, the course of life on earth could be largely defined as the struggle among species. Richard Conniff, writing for the journal Audubon (Vol. 92(6):120-133;1990), summed up the moral irony inherent in charges of speciesism: "How could animal liberationists argue on the one hand that humans were merely a part of nature, no better or worse than other animals, and on the other that our species alone was obliged to give up practices which it naturally evolved, like killing and eating animals and wearing their skins? How could they argue that we have a high moral obligation to treat animals more humanely than they would treat us or each other?" Of course, humans are, in a certain sense, above nature, able to overcome our natural programming and adopt behaviors apparently not assigned by our heritage. We may determine that we have a moral obligation to other creatures, and ecological concern can certainly be inferred from the humanist philosphy. But to say that such an obligation could transcend even the value of human life makes little sense from a humanist perspective.

If one does not assign some relative value to the lives of different species, even conducting routine activities such as driving an auto becomes problematic. Would you really drive your car if the mice, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, birds or even perhaps the occasional cat whose life you ended to get to your destination had the same value as a human? In 30 years of driving I’ve killed a couple of these unfortunate creatures that I know of. There are undoubtedly millions of these little lives sacrificed each year so that we may transport ourselves in speed and comfort. If these were human lives, we’d all have to start walking or pedaling instead.

Dority, as a cat owner, would face a different sort of problem. Cat owners have traditionally been forced to sacrifice the lives of other animals to sustain their pets. Unless they are fed a recently-developed synthetic dietary supplement, each of her six beloved pets, as highly evolved and specialized carnivores, must consume meat to remain healthy. Vegetarian cats have a way of quickly becoming dead cats. Cats are notorious "speciesists," as their owners must be, as well. How does one feed such a pride a natural diet without at some point deciding that feline life is more important than the animals which must be killed to feed it? If there is virtue in "ecological humility," does it make sense to remove animals such as tuna from the environment to feed domestic pets? If the ecology is our primary concern rather than the pleasure and satisfaction of human masters, is it rational to divert natural resources to cows or pigs so that they may be killed to provide nourishment for yet other animals which live outside the natural environment? Would a devout ecologist send out boats to catch Charlie the Tuna to feed Morris the Cat? Dority might answer, "Sorry, Charlie." Considering that she is at least ambiguous about the relative values of human life and cat life, the thought of Dority and her carniphile cats in a "Donner party" scenario are a little frightening.

As a further sidenote, cats threaten the ecology in other ways, as well. Even supposedly "vegetarian" housecats are a threat to the natural environment if permitted to roam outside, as at least some of Dority's cats do. Part-time predation by pet cats take a tremendous toll on wildlife, killing many millions of small animals each year ( http://myfwc.com/cats/). This ranks them well ahead of any oil spill as a man-made disaster for the ecology. If humans are said to rank no higher that other creatures, can the pleasure that cats provide them justify this level of carnage?

Dority attempts to link the primacy of human concerns, based upon the realization of human "superiority," to a lack of concern for the ecology, saying that, "blinkered conceit and ecological arrogance should not be part of the humanist philosophy." In fact, there need be no conflict between humanism’s promotion of the welfare of humanity and preservation of the ecology, since these two concerns are in fact inseparable. This is the essential point made in the Humanist Manifesto II when it says, "we should perceive ourselves as integral to the sources of our being in nature." In making human life and welfare its primary concerns, humanism is hardly saying that other forms of life can be wasted for our short-term gain. The purpose of the humanist view of ecology is not to have more trees simply for the sake of the trees, but to provide a healthy, rich, beautiful environment for humanity and the other creatures which constitute our natural environment.

In summary, Dority’s portrayal of humanism as supporting an extreme animal rights position is largely inaccurate. Humanism, as generally described, recognizes the superior position of humanity while promoting a view which values nature as essential to humankind’s long term happiness. Humanist statements concerning the relative importance of humans and other species, and the consequent ethical implications, are unequivocal. Because of its promotion of human welfare, any simple choice between the life of an animal and that of a human would have to be decided in favor of the human. Although it is conceivable that a humanist might allow a particularly evil person to die, the introduction of a cat into the equation would be of no effect from a humanist ethical perspective. Dority’s desire that humanism take a strong stance in favor of species preservation is in no way compromised by the fact that humanism places primary importance upon human welfare. The most successful arguments in favor of environmental issues will, in fact, be those that can convince the ordinary person that preserving our ecology is good for us as humans because we are part of the animal kingdom. To save the ecology, we need not sacrifice ourselves. Copyright 2000 by Patrick Inniss.  All rights reserved.

November 16, 2012  When does an animal count as a person?

NB: This will be discussed forever just like other philosophical issues. Gary Francione, American legal scholar, criticizes the concept of granting personhood because the animal in question is human-like, and argues instead that sentience is the only characteristic a being requires to have basic rights.

Read more: Animal rights moves forward in Europe; AW Party wins; AU under pressure, Canada lags behind; time for an Animal Charter of Rights & Freedoms; WTO hinders global progress; NZ legally recognizes animals as sentient beings

Animal Law - a growing field; not all creatures equal; reforming the legal system; Quebec to amend Civil Code; animals are 'victims', says Oregon Supreme Court