Being human means respecting animals
This is my first post on my blog, which will predominantly focus on how we humans treat other animals, especially the ethics of such treatment and how politics affects our impact on them. I’ll also be talking about social justice issues within the human sphere. Indeed, undemocratic and biased policy-making often contributes to the abuse of nonhumans.
In my view, how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable is the ultimate test of our humanity. Human beings are responsible for killing an estimated 58 billion animals a year for food, the vast majority for reasons of gluttony rather than subsistence. An estimated 200 million animals are imprisoned in laboratories and subject to experiments which are likely to cause significant pain and distress. In other words, nonhumans are, generally, the most vulnerable to our violence.
We are, if we really put our minds to it, reasonable creatures capable of moral reflection and action (although our social environment does play a major role in shaping attitudes). By resisting the opportunity to exploit our power over others, we realise our potential for moral progress. And if we can act morally towards other species, then our character and culture is likely to be well-disposed to peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans.
The blog title ‘Justice, not just us’ highlights the core of the controversy over animals’ moral status. I’ve studied animal ethics for twenty years and every attempt to provide a rational and consistent justification for abusing animals fails. They inevitably collapse into arbitrary, prejudicial discrimination against nonhumans. This is because there is no single morally relevant characteristic held by all humans and no nonhuman sentient creatures – known as the argument from marginal cases.
A fascinating paper by an American scientist called Dr Richard Vance, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1992, Vol 268: 1715-1719), attempts to analyse animal rights ethics while defending animal experimentation. Vance acknowledges that ‘the charge that [animal rights theorists] are motivated primarily by emotion is unconvincing to anyone who takes the time to read their work and is familiar with modern ethics’.
In fact, animal rights theory emerges from the “mainstream” analytical ethics approach. This has been the dominant tradition in ethics research in the English–speaking world. It eschews emotion in favour of objective analysis, rooted in reason that seeks to apply ethical concepts such as justice in a fair and consistent manner. To justify different treatment in two separate cases, morally relevant differences must be shown. We should not arbitrarily favour or persecute others.
So how does Vance get from this position to defending painful animal research? Funnily enough he simply rejects ethics altogether. Instead, he states his preference for, and I quote, ‘religious and ethnic traditions that draw on an array of sources such as canonical texts, authoritative readings, overlapping (even contradictory platitudes), community norms’. I wonder whether he would have accepted the ‘community norms’ of Germany in the late 1930s?
But surely how we treat others is at least as important, and demands at least as much care and rigour, as analysis into understanding biological phenomena or any other scientific endeavour? It seems extraordinary and a startling example of denial that an intelligent scientist such as Dr Vance prefers to cling to irrational dogma rather than engage in logical analysis and strive for consistency and fairness. Indeed, the same charge could be laid at the door of all promoters of animal research. At root, I believe that the refusal to recognise and grant basic moral rights to animals simply involves a collapse into the ‘might is right’ outlook – it is fundamentally anti-ethical.
Which brings us back to the blog title. It calls for fair and consistent justice and rejects egoism and tyranny in all its forms, including human supremacism.