I want to consider a number of questions about animal rights that I have confronted over the years. These are questions that have come up repeatedly, and they seem to appear whether the forum is in the United States or abroad, in Western nations or in non-Western nations, or whether the audience is composed of faculty and students from law schools, medical schools, veterinary schools, high schools, members of the general public who call in to a radio talk show, journalists, or neighbors at a holiday party. An examination of these questions will also help to demonstrate how the theory of animal rights that I have presented in this book is applied in concrete contexts.
It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many of those who were enslaved would not have existed in the first place had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to procreate 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 humans or animals–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.
It is irrelevant whether animals devised rights or can even understand the concept of rights. We do not require that humans be potential devisers of rights or understand the concept of rights in order to be beneficiaries of rights. For example, a severely retarded human being might not have the ability to understand what a right is, but that does not mean that we should not accord her the protection of at least the basic right not to be treated as a resource of others.
You may treat your animal companion as a member of your family and effectively accord her or him inherent value or the basic right not to be treated as your resource. But your treatment of your animal really means that you regard your animal property as having higher than market value; should you change your mind and administer daily and severe beatings to your dog for disciplinary purposes, or not feed your cat so that she will be more motivated to catch the mice in the basement of your store, or kill your animal because you no longer want the financial expense, your decision will be protected by the law. You are free to value your property as you see fit. You may decide to polish your car often or you may let the finish erode. The choice is yours. As long as you provide the minimal maintenance for your car so that it can pass inspection, any other decision you make with respect to the vehicle, including your decision to give it to a scrap dealer, is your business. As long as you provide minimal food, water, and shelter to your pet, any other decision you make, apart from torturing the animal for no purpose whatsoever, is your business, including your decision to dump your pet at the local shelter (where many animals are either killed or sold into research, or have your pet killed by a willing veterinarian.
Many years ago, I adopted a hamster from a law school classmate. The hamster became ill one night, and I called an emergency veterinary service. The veterinarian said that the minimum amount for an emergency visit was $50 and asked me why I would want to spend that amount when I could get a “new” hamster from any pet shop for about $3. I took the hamster to the veterinarian anyway, but that event was one of the first times my consciousness was raised about the status of animals as economic commodities.
As someone who lives with seven rescued canine companions whom I love dearly, I do not treat this matter lightly. Although I regard my companions as family members, they are still my property and I could decide tomorrow to have them all killed. As much as I enjoy living with dogs, were there only two dogs remaining in the world, I would not be in favor of breeding them so that we could have more “pets” and thus perpetuate their property status. Indeed, anyone who truly cares about dogs should visit a “puppy mill”–a place where dogs are bred in the hundreds or thousands and are treated as nothing more than commodities. Female dogs are bred repeatedly until they are “spent” and are either killed or sold into research. We should, of course, care for all those domestic animals that are presently alive, but we should not continue to bring more animals into existence so that we may own them as pets.
The issue is not whom we care about or value most; the question is whether it is morally justifiable to treat sentient beings–human or non-human–as commodities or exclusively as means to the ends of others. For example, we generally do not think that we should use any humans as unconsenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even though we would get much better data about human illness if we used humans rather than animals in experiments. After all, the application to the human context of data from animal experiments–assuming that the animal data are relevant at all–requires often difficult and always imprecise extrapolation. We could avoid these difficulties by using humans, which would eliminate the need for extrapolation. But we do not do so because even though we may disagree about many moral issues, most of us are in agreement that the use of humans as unwilling experimental subjects is ruled out as an option from the beginning. No one suggests that we care more about those we are unwilling to use as experimental subjects than we do about the others who would benefit from that use.
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. Moreover, it is a bit strange to describe our modern commodification of animals as natural in any sense of the word. We have created completely unnatural environments and agricultural procedures in order to maximize profits. We do bizarre experiments in which we transplant genes and organs from animals into humans and vice versa. We are now cloning animals. None of this can be described as natural. Labels such as “natural” and “traditional” are just that: labels. They are not reasons. If people defend the imposition of pain and suffering on an animal based on what is natural or traditional, it usually means that they cannot otherwise justify their conduct.
A variant of this question focuses on the traditions of particular groups. For example, in May 1999 the Makah tribe from Washington State killed its first gray whale in over seventy years. The killing, which was done with steel harpoons, antitank guns, armor-piercing ammunition, motorized chase boats, and a $310,000 grant from the federal government, was defended on the grounds that whaling was a Makah tradition. But the same argument could (and is) made to defend clitoral mutilations in Africa and bride-burning in India. The issue is not whether conduct is part of a culture; all conduct is part of some culture. The issue is whether the conduct can be morally justified.
Finally, some argue that since nonhuman animals eat other nonhumans in the wild, our use of animals is natural. There are four responses to this position. First, although some animals eat each other in the wild, many do not. Many animals are vegetarians. Moreover, there is far more cooperation in nature than our imagined “cruelty of nature” would have us believe. Second, whether animals eat other animals is beside the point. How is it relevant whether animals eat other animals? Some animals are carnivorous and cannot exist without eating meat. We do not fall into that category; we can get along fine without eating meat, and more and more people are taking the position that our health and environment would both benefit from a shift away from a diet of animals products. Third, animals do all sorts of things that humans do not regard as morally appropriate. For example, dogs copulate and defecate in the street. Does that mean that we should follow their example? Fourth, it is interesting that when it is convenient for us to do so, we attempt to justify our exploitation of animals by resting on our supposed “superiority.” And when our supposed “superiority” gets in the way of what we want to do, we suddenly portray ourselves as nothing more than another species of wild animal, as entitled as foxes to eat chickens.
A related question that often arises in this context is whether speciesism is “as bad” as racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination. As a general matter, it is not useful to rank evils. Was it “worse” that Hitler killed Jews than that he killed Catholics or Romanies? Is slavery “worse” than genocide? Is non-race-based slavery “worse” than race-based slavery? Is sexism “worse” than slavery and genocide, or is it “worse” than slavery but not worse than genocide? Frankly, I am not even sure what these questions mean, but I suspect that persons considering them assume implicitly that one group is “better” than another. In any event, these forms of discrimination are all terrible, and they are terrible in different ways. But they all share one thing in common: they all treat humans as things without protectable interests. In this sense, all of these forms of discrimination–as different as they are–are similar to speciesism, which results in our treating animals as things.
Finally, there are some who argue that in saying that some animals have greater cognitive ability than some humans, such as the severely retarded or the extremely senile, we are equating those humans with animals and characterizing them in a disrespectful way. Again, this misses the point of the argument for animal rights. For centuries, we have justified our treatment of animals as resources because they supposedly lack some characteristic that we have. But some animals have such a “special” characteristic to a greater degree than do some of us and some humans do not have that characteristic at all. The point is that although a particular characteristic may be useful for some purposes, the only characteristic that is required for moral significance is sentience. We do not and should not treat those humans who are impaired as resources for other humans. And if we really believe that animals have morally significant interests, then we ought to apply the principle of equal consideration and not treat them as resources as well. The argument for animal rights does not decrease respect for human life; it increases respect for all life.
Another version of this question is that since the Nazis also favored animal rights, does this mean that animal rights as a moral theory is bankrupt and attempts to devalue humans? Once again, the question is absurd. In the first place, the question is based on a factual error. The Nazis were not in favor of animal rights. Animal welfare laws in Germany restricted vivisection to some degree, but they hardly reflected any societal preference for abolishing the property status of animals. After all, the Nazis casually murdered millions of humans and animals in the course of the Second World War, behavior not compatible with a rights position, human or otherwise. It is no more accurate to say that the Nazis supported animal rights than it is to say that Americans support animal rights because we have a federal Animal Welfare Act.
But what if, contrary to fact, the Nazis did advocate the abolition of all animal exploitation? What would that say about the idea of animal rights? The answer is absolutely clear: it would say nothing about whether the animal rights position is right or wrong. That question can be settled only by whether the moral arguments in favor of animal rights are valid or not. The Nazis also strongly favored marriage. Does that mean marriage is an inherently immoral institution? The Nazis also believed that sports were essential to the development of strong character. Does this mean that competitive sports are inherently immoral? Jesus Christ preached a gospel of sharing resources on an equitable basis. Gandhi promoted a similar message, as did Stalin. But Stalin also devalued human beings. Can we conclude that the idea of more equitable resource distribution has some inherent moral flaw that taints Jesus or Gandhi? No, of course not. We no more devalue human life if we accord moral significance to animal interests than we devalue the lives of “normal” humans when we accord value to certain humans, such as the severely retarded, and prohibit their use in experiments.
As a general matter, this question is intended to demonstrate that if we do not know where to draw the line in a matter of morality, or if line drawing is difficult, then we ought not to draw the line anywhere. This form of reasoning is invalid. Consider the following example. There is a great deal of disagreement about the scope and extent of human rights. Some people argue that health care and education are fundamental rights that a civilized government should provide to everyone; some people argue that health care and education are commodities like any other, not the subject of rights, and that people ought to pay for them. But we would, I suspect, all agree that whatever our disagreements about human rights–however unsure we are of where to draw the line–we most certainly agree, for instance, that genocide is morally wrong. We do not say that it is morally acceptable to kill off entire populations because we may disagree over whether humans are entitled to health care. Similarly, our uncertainty or disagreement regarding the sentience of ants is no license to ignore the interests of chimpanzees, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals whom we do know are sentient.
We should, of course, be concerned about whether an ostensibly brain-dead human really does lack all cognitive activity. We ought also to be sensitive to the concerns of those related to the comatose human; they may oppose the instrumental use of the human for various reasons, such as religious opposition to organ transplantation. But humans who are really irreversibly brain dead are really no different from plants; they are alive but they are not conscious and have no interests to protect. According such humans a basic right not to be treated as the resources of others makes no sense.
Another complicating factor in the abortion debate is that as a cultural matter the status of a pregnant woman as a “mother” and of a fetus as a “baby” tends to kick in immediately after the woman learns that she is pregnant, particularly in cases in which the woman wants to have a child. That is, from the moment of conception, or learning of conception, we tend to think of the fetus as the human person–the baby–that it will become. But that characterization does not alter the biological fact that a fertilized ovum does not have interests in the way that the baby does.
If we approach the abortion question outside the framework of religion and souls, and outside social conventions that characterize a pregnant woman as a “mother” and a fetus as a “baby” from the moment of conception, it becomes much more difficult to understand how fetuses–particularly early-term fetuses–may be said to have interests. Although it is not certain that any fetuses are sentient, it is clear that early-term fetuses are not, and therefore they do not have interests in not suffering–they cannot suffer. Moreover, it is not clear how nonsentient fetuses can have an interest in continued existence. Although a normal fetus will continue to term and result in the birth of a human person, the nonsentient fetus cannot itself have an interest in continued existence.
Sentient beings are those who are conscious of pain and pleasure; those with some sort of mind and some sense of self. The harm of death to a sentient being is that she or he will no longer be able to have conscious experiences. If you kill me painlessly while I am asleep, you have harmed me because you have deprived me of having further experiences as a sentient being that I, by virtue of the fact that I have not chosen to commit suicide, wish to have. And our experience of sentient beings other than humans reasonably supports the position that all sentient beings share in common an interest in continuing to live–sentience is merely a means to the continued existence of organisms who are able to have mental experiences of pleasure and pain. We cannot analogize a fetus and a sleeping person; the fetus has never been sentient and therefore has never possessed the interests that are characteristic of all sentient beings.
If we claim that a nonsentient fertilized ovum has an interest in continued existence simply because there is a high degree of probability that in nine months it will become a child with interests, then we are committed to the view that a fertilized ovum has an interest in continued existence immediately upon conception. And if we can say that a fertilized ovum has an interest in continued existence immediately upon conception, it becomes difficult to understand why we would not also say that a sperm and an egg have interests in conception before their union occurs. The primary difference between the fertilized ovum, and the sperm and egg, concerns probability (it is more probable that a fertilized ovum will eventually become a human baby than it is that any particular sperm will fertilize an egg), and nothing more.
To the extent that we might say, for instance, that it is in the “interest” of the fetus that the pregnant woman not smoke cigarettes during pregnancy, such an assertion is no different from saying that it is in the “interest” of an engine to be properly lubricated or of a plant to be watered. Although it may be prudent for the pregnant woman not to smoke if she has an interest in having a healthy baby (just as it is prudent for us to put oil in our cars or to water our plants), the nonsentient fetus does not yet have an experiential welfare and does not prefer or want or desire anything. In the absence of a religious belief about the ensoulment of fetuses, it is difficult to understand why the abortion of an early-term fetus is morally objectionable or how abortion can be considered a harm to a nonsentient fetus. If the abortion of a nonsentient fetus is morally objectionable, then so would be the use of intrauterine devices or drugs, such as RU 486, that prevent the attachment to the uterine wall of a fertilized ovum. And we may be committed to the view that a sperm and an egg have an interest in being united so that the use of contraception violates the interests of the sperm and the egg. Again, in the absence of a religious framework, such views appear quite untenable.
What if we determine that some fetuses are sentient? Certainly, late-term fetuses react to certain stimuli. It may be the case that such fetuses are sentient and have an experiential welfare. In this case, it would make sense to say that such fetuses have interests. But even if we assume that sentient fetuses have a basic right that prevents their wholly instrumental treatment, abortion presents a most unusual conflict of rights. One right holder exists within the body of another right holder and is dependent upon her for the very existence that serves as the predicate for the fetus having interests in the first place. Such a conflict is unique, and protection of fetal interests risks state intrusion on the woman’s body and privacy interests in a way that no other protection of the basic right of another requires. If a parent is abusing her three-year-old, the state may remove the child in order to protect the child’s interests. The state cannot protect fetal interests without intruding on the bodily autonomy of the woman and forcing her to continue an unwanted pregnancy. But it may be the case that the sentience of fetuses militates in favor of abortion methods that are equally safe for the woman but that preserve the life of the fetus.
In order to understand this point, consider the following example. We build roads. We allow people to drive automobiles. We know as a statistical matter that when we build a road, some humans–we do not know who they are beforehand–will be harmed as the result of automobile accidents. Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between activity that has human harm as an inevitable but unintended consequence and the intentional killing of particular humans. Similarly, the fact that animals may be harmed as an unintended consequence of planting vegetables, even if we do not use toxic chemicals and even if we exercise great care to avoid harming animals, does not mean that it is morally acceptable to kill animals intentionally.
A related question is: why don’t plants have rights given that they are alive? This is the question that every vegetarian gets in the company of meat eater. These meat eaters may be otherwise rational and intelligent beings, but when confronted with a vegetarian, their discomfort with their diet often rises to the surface in the form of defensiveness.
No one really thinks that plants are the same as sentient nonhumans. If I ate your tomato and your dog, you would not regard those as similar acts. As far as we know, plants are not sentient. They are not conscious and able to experience pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, endorphins, receptors for benzodiazepines, or any of the other indicia of sentience. Plants do not have interests; animals do.
This position, of course, makes no sense. Most of us are opposed to racial discrimination, and yet we live in a society in which white middle-class people enjoy the benefits of past racial discrimination; that is, the majority enjoys a standard of living that it would not have had there been a nondiscriminatory, equitable distribution of resources, including educational and job opportunities. Many of us support measures, such as affirmative action, that are intended to correct past discrimination. But those who oppose racial discrimination are not obligated to leave the United States or to commit suicide because we cannot avoid the fact that white people are beneficiaries of past discrimination against people of color.
Consider another example: assume that we find that the local water company employs child labor and we object to child labor. Are we obligated to die of dehydration because the water company has chosen to violate the rights of children? No, of course not. We would be obligated to support the abolition of this use of children, but we would not be obligated to die. Similarly, we should join together collectively and demand an end to animal exploitation, but we are not obligated to accept animal exploitation or forego any benefits that it may provide.
We certainly could develop drugs and surgical procedures without the use of animals, and many would prefer we do so. Those who object to animal use for these purposes, however, have no control as individuals over government regulations or corporate policies concerning animals. To say that they cannot consistently criticize the actions of government or industry while they derive benefits from these actions, over which they have no control, is absurd as a matter of logic. And as a matter of political ideology, it is a most disturbing endorsement of unquestioned obeisance to the policies of the corporate state. Indeed, the notion that we must either embrace animal exploitation or reject anything that involves animal use is eerily like the reactionary slogan “love it or leave it,” uttered by the pseudo-patriots who criticized opponents of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Moreover, humans have so commodified animals that it is virtually impossible to avoid animal exploitation completely. Animal by-products are used in a wide variety of things, including the asphalt on roads and synthetic fabrics. But the impossibility of avoiding all contact with animal exploitation does not mean that we cannot avoid the most obvious and serious forms of exploitation. The individual who is not stranded in a lifeboat or on a mountaintop always has it within her power to avoid eating meat and dairy products, products that could not be produced without the use of animals, unlike drugs and medical procedures, which could be developed without animal testing.
This should not surprise us. Anticruelty laws assume that animals are the property of humans, and it is in this context that the supposed balance of human and animal interests occurs. But as we saw, we cannot really balance the interests of property owners against their property because property cannot have interests that are protectable against the property owner. The humane treatment principle, as applied through animal welfare laws, does nothing more than require that the owners of animal property accord that level of care, and no more, that is necessary to the particular purpose. If we are using animals in experiments, they should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce valid data. If we are using purpose-bred animals to make fur coats, they should receive the level of care, and no more, that is required to produce coats that are soft and shiny. If we are raising animals for food, those animals should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce meat that can be sold at a particular price level to meet a particular demand. If we are using dogs to guard our property, we should provide the level of care that is required to sustain the dog for that purpose. As long as we give the dog the minimal food and water and shelter–a dead dog will not serve the purpose–we can tie that dog on a three-foot leash and we can beat him, even excessively, for “disciplinary” purposes.
We claim to acknowledge that the interest of animals in not suffering is morally significant, but our animal practices belie that claim. If we are really to honor the moral interests of animals, then we must abolish institutionalized animal exploitation and not merely regulate animal use through animal welfare measures that assume the legitimacy of the status of animals as property.
Under economic pressure, governments are now seeking to withdraw some species from endangered-species protection and to readmit them as hunters’ prey, so that the fees generated by hunting licenses and the trade in animal parts can help to pay for maintenance of the remaining animals. Moratoriums on killing particular species are almost always eliminated as soon as populations increase beyond bare extinction levels, thus inviting the “harvesting” of excess animals. We do not, however, treat any humans in the same way. We do not regard it appropriate to use homeless people as forced organ donors in order to subsidize the social welfare costs of other homeless people. We do not condone the “harvesting” of humans.
In any event, laws like the Endangered Species Act do not recognize that animals, because they are sentient, have moral value beyond what humans give them. Such laws regard animals as no different from any other resource that we wish to preserve for the benefit of future generations. We temporarily protect animals like elephants so that future generations of humans will have elephants to use, but elephants are, in the end, only economic commodities, and as long as there are enough elephants, we ultimately value ivory bracelets more than we value the interests of the elephant.
Finally, it should be understood that it is unlikely that any significant change in the status of animals as property will come about as the result of legislation or court cases until there is a significant social change in our attitude about animals. That is, it is not the law that will alter our moral thinking about animals; it must be the other way around. It was not the law that abolished slavery; indeed, the law protected slave ownership and the institution of slavery was not abolished by the law but by the Civil War. The present-day world economy is far more dependent on animal exploitation than were the southern United States on human slavery. Animal exploitation is not going to be ended by a pronouncement of the Supreme Court or an act of congress–at least not until a majority of us accept the position that the institution of animal property is morally unacceptable.
Moreover, in the United States at least, the law generally imposes on humans no “duty to aid” even when other humans are involved. If I am walking down the street and see a person lying passed out, face down in a small puddle of water and drowning, the law imposes no obligation on me to assist that person even if all I need to do is roll her over, something I can do without risk or serious inconvenience to myself.
The point is that the basic right of humans not to be treated as things does not guarantee that humans will aid other humans, or that we are obligated to intervene to prevent harm from coming to humans from animals or from other humans. Similarly, the basic right of animals not to be treated as things means that we cannot treat animals as our resources. It does not necessarily mean that we have moral or legal obligations to render them aid or to intervene to prevent harm from coming to them.
The notion that animal rights are a matter of opinion is directly related to the status of animals as human property; this question, like most others examined here, assumes the legitimacy of regarding animals as things that exist solely as means to human ends. Because we regard animals as our property, we believe that we have the right to value animals in the ways that we think appropriate. If, however, we are not morally justified in treating animals as our property, then whether we ought to eat meat or use animals in experiments or impose pain and suffering on them for sport or entertainment is no more a matter of opinion than is the moral status of human slavery.
Moreover, as long as animals are treated as property, then we will continue to think that what constitutes “humane” treatment for your animal property really is a matter of opinion because you get to decide how much your property is worth. Just as we have opinions about the value of other things that we own, we can have opinions about the value of our animal property. Although our valuation of our property may be too high or too low relative to its market value, this is not generally considered a moral question. So when Jane criticizes Simon because he beats his dog regularly in order to make sure that his dog is a vicious and effective guard dog, Simon is perfectly justified in responding to Jane that her valuation of his property is not a moral matter up for grabs, but a matter of his property rights.
On another level, this question relates to a subject discussed in the Introduction, the position that all morality is relative, a matter of convention or convenience or tradition, with no valid claim to objective truth. If this were the case, then the morality of genocide or human slavery or child molestation would be no more than matters of opinion. Although it is certainly true that moral propositions cannot be proved in the way that mathematical propositions can, this does not mean that “anything goes.” Some moral views are supported by better reasons than others, and some moral views have a better “fit” with other views that we hold. The view that we can treat animals as things simply because we are human and they are not is speciesism pure and simple. The view that we ought not to treat animals as things is consistent with our general notion that animals have morally significant interests. We do not treat any humans exclusively as the resources of others; we have abolished the institution of human property. We have seen that there is no morally sound reason to treat animals differently for purposes of the one right not to be treated as a thing, and that the animal rights position does not mean that we cannot prefer the human over the animal in situations of true emergency or conflict where we have not manufactured that conflict in the first place by violating the principle of equal consideration.
The animals rights position articulated in this book does not rely on any theological beliefs; it requires only a simple application of the principle of equal consideration. Humans exclusively possess no special characteristic, nor are they free of any defect that they attribute to animals.
Many humans like to eat meat. They enjoy eating meat so much that they find it hard to be detached when they consider moral questions about animals. But moral analysis requires at the very least that we leave our obvious biases at the door. Animal agriculture is the most significant source of animal suffering in the world today, and there is absolutely no need for it. Indeed, animal agriculture has devastating environmental effects, and a growing number of health care professionals claim that meat and animal products are detrimental to human health. We could live without killing animals and could feed more of the world’s humans–the beings we always claim to care about when we seek to justify animal exploitation–if we abandoned animal agriculture altogether.
The desire to eat meat has clouded some of the greatest minds in human history. Charles Darwin recognized that animals were not qualitatively different from humans and possessed many of the characteristics that were once thought to be uniquely human–but he continued to eat them. Jeremy Bentham argued that animals had morally significant interests because they could suffer, but he also continued to eat them.
Old habits die hard, but that does not mean they are morally justified. It is precisely in situations where both moral issues and strong personal preferences come into play that we should be most careful to think clearly. As the case of meat eating shows, however, sometimes our brute preferences determine our moral thinking, rather than the other way around. Many people have said to me, “Yes, I know it’s morally wrong to eat meat, but I just love hamburgers.”
Regrettably for those who like to eat meat, this is no argument, and a taste for meat in no way justifies the violation of a moral principle. Our conduct merely demonstrates that despite what we say about the moral significance of animal interests, we are willing to ignore those interests whenever we benefit from doing so–even when the benefit is nothing more than our pleasure or convenience.
If we take morality seriously, then we must confront what it dictates: if it is wrong for Simon to torture dogs for pleasure, then it is morally wrong for us to eat meat.