One of the main arguments that I make is that although almost everyone accepts that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals, 99% of the suffering and death that we inflict on animals can be justified only by our pleasure, amusement, or convenience. For example, the best justification that we have for killing the billions of nonhumans that we eat every year is that we enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. This is not an acceptable justification if we take seriously, as we purport to, that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals, and it illustrates the confused thinking that I characterize as our “moral schizophrenia” when it comes to nonhumans.
A follow-up question that I often get is: “What about vivisection? Surely that use of animals is not merely for our pleasure, is it?”
In September 2007, two animal welfare organizations, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, will hold an “International Conference on the Relationship between Animal Abuse and Human Violence.” Although the conference will be held at Oxford University, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is, according to the Assistant to the Director of Public Affairs at Oxford University, “not an official or affiliated centre” of the University.
The conference information that is provided states:
The conference will highlight the importance of animal ethics by exploring the following questions:
- Is there empirical evidence of a link between animal abuse and violence to humans or anti-social behaviour?
- How should we interpret the evidence?
- If there is a link, what are the ethical implications?
- What are the implications for social and legal policy?
The purpose of the conference is to enable people to better understand the nature of animal abuse, the motivation that leads to cruel acts and the implications for human as well as animal welfare.” A “key research” area of the Centre “is the link between animal abuse and human violence.
There are two problems—serious and related—with approaching animal ethics in this way.
This is the second part of the entry on frequently asked questions. The first part was posted last week.
4. Question: Isn’t human use of animals a “tradition,” or “natural,” and therefore morally justified?
Answer: No. Every form of discrimination in the history of humankind has been defended as “traditional.” Sexism is routinely justified on the ground that it is traditional for women to be subservient to men: “A woman’s place is in the home.” Human slavery has been a tradition in most cultures at some times. The fact that some behavior can be described as traditional has nothing to do with whether the behavior is or is not morally acceptable.
In addition to relying on tradition, some characterize our use of animals as “natural” and then declare it to be morally acceptable. Again, to describe something as natural does not in itself say anything about the morality of the practice. In the first place, just about every form of discrimination ever practiced has been described as natural as well as traditional. The two notions are often used interchangeably. We have justified human slavery as representing a natural hierarchy of slave owners and slaves. We have justified sexism as representing the natural superiority of men over women.
In my essay of December 13, 2006, I offered a response to a frequently asked question about whether plants should be considered as rightholders. I received many emails from readers who found that essay useful in talking with others about animal rights and veganism, and who requested that I provide some more answers to the sorts of questions that animal rights advocates are often asked.
In this essay, I provide three questions and answers that I hope will be useful to you in your advocacy. Next week, I will provide three more.
1. Question: Domestic animals, such as cows and pigs, and laboratory rats would not exist were it not for our bringing them into existence in the first place for our purposes. So is it not the case that we are free to treat them as our resources?
Answer: No. The fact that we are in some sense responsible for the existence of a being does not give us the right to treat that being as our resource. Were that so, then we could treat our children as resources. After all, they would not exist were it not for our actions—from our decisions to conceive to decisions not to abort. And although we are granted a certain amount of discretion as to how we treat our children, there are limits. We cannot treat them as we do animals. We cannot enslave them, sell them into prostitution, or sell their organs. We cannot kill them. Indeed, it is a cultural norm that bringing a child into existence creates moral obligations on the part of the parents to care for the child and not exploit her.
It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many slaves would not have existed at all had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to breed and their children were considered property. Although such an argument appears ludicrous to us now, it demonstrates that we cannot assume the legitimacy of the institution of property—of human or nonhumans—and then ask whether it is acceptable to treat property as property. The answer will be predetermined. Rather, we must first ask whether the institution of animal (or human) property can be morally justified.
And as I have argued in my website presentation on Animals as Property, the institution of animal property is no more defensible than the institution of human property.