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.
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, suffering, or death 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 large grant from the federal government, was defended on the grounds that whaling was a Makah tradition. But the same argument could be (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.
5. Question: But nonhuman animals eat other nonhumans in the wild, so isn’t it okay for us to eat them?
Answer: No. First of all, although some animals eat each other in the wild, many do not. Many animals are vegans. 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 animal 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.
6. Question: Hitler was a vegetarian; what does that say about vegetarians?
Answer: It says nothing more than that some evil people may also be people who do not eat animal flesh.
The question itself is based on an invalid argument form:
- Hitler did not eat animal flesh.
- Hitler was evil.
- Therefore, people who do not eat animal flesh are evil.
Stalin ate meat and was a pretty nasty character. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. What does that say about those who eat flesh? Just as we cannot conclude that all meat eaters have anything in common with Stalin beyond meat eating, we cannot conclude that all those who do not eat flesh have anything in common with Hitler beyond not eating flesh.
Furthermore, it is not certain that Hitler actually was a vegetarian and some claim emphatically that he was not. And in any event, the Nazi interest in reducing meat consumption was not a matter of the moral status of animals but reflected a concern with organic health and healing and avoidance of artificial ingredients in food and pharmaceutical products that was linked to the broader Nazi goals of “racial hygiene.”
Moreover, even if Hitler was a vegetarian, so what? He was not a vegan. There is no logical or moral difference between flesh and dairy or eggs. So even if Hitler did not eat flesh, he directly participated in animal exploitation that was every bit as morally objectionable.
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 only be settled 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 severely mentally disabled humans, and prohibit their use in experiments.
Source: Gary l. Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).
Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione