For those who decry gradualism, the practical philosopher Peter Singer would ask, “Would you prefer to live in the horror you’re in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner?” The answers should be clear.
Let’s ask similar questions in the context of human exploitation:
Would you prefer to get an ice cream cone before you were molested? Would you prefer not to be tortured before you were murdered? Would you prefer to be tortured for 15 minutes rather than 20 minutes before you were murdered? Would you prefer not to be beaten before you were raped? Would you prefer to be water boarded on a padded board rather than an unpadded board?
The answers should be clear.
Of course it is better to do less harm than more harm. But that begs the fundamental question as to whether we can justify imposing the harm in the first place. If rape is wrong, we should not have campaigns for “humane” rape. The same analysis applies to pedophilia, torture, murder, etc.
Moreover, Newkirk fails to acknowledge a simple economic reality: because animals are chattel property and have no inherent value, the only welfare reforms that are accepted are those that provide an economic benefit for us. PETA acknowledges this explicitly in its campaign for gassing poultry—that method of slaughter is much better economically for producers. That is precisely why chicken processing plants are increasingly adopting this method of killing. It makes economic sense. But the economic reality of animals as property means that the level of animal welfare protection will always be very low and linked to the economically efficient exploitation of animals. So PETA has, in effect, become a partner with industry to make animal exploitation more efficient. Great.
The thing that Newkirk does not bother to mention about Singer is that he does not think that eating animals or animal products is inherently problematic. Indeed, Singer has said repeatedly that because most animals do not have an interest in their lives, the problem is not that we use but how we use them. Singer thinks that being an omnivore is morally acceptable if you take care to eat animal flesh and products from animals who have been “humanely” raised and slaughtered. I have discussed this issue at length in my books (particularly Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation and my forthcoming book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, to be published by Columbia University Press in April 2010) but you can read some essays on this subject here (See 1, 2, 3, 4).
Newkirk, whose organization, according to Newsweek Magazine, kills approximately 85% of the animals it rescues, appears to agree that death is not per se a harm for animals. So for Singer and Newkirk, the issue is treatment, not use. But that is a fundamentally different way of analyzing the problem than what we would do were humans involved. And I would maintain that what accounts for the difference is nothing more than speciesism.
Most of us claim to believe that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals. Whatever else “necessity” means, it must mean that we cannot justify inflicting suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. That we believe this was demonstrated in a compelling way in the outcry over Michael Vick’s dogfighting situation.
But, as I noted in my essay, We’re All Michael Vick, there is no difference between sitting around the pit watching dogs fight and sitting around a barbecue pit roasting the corpses of animals who have been tortured every bit as much as Vick’s dogs. We do not need to eat animal products. Indeed, more and more mainstream health care professionals are acknowledging that animal products are detrimental to human health. And animal agriculture is unquestionably an environmental disaster. Sure, we pay someone else to do the killing, but that’s a difference without a moral distinction.
So our continued consumption of animal products runs afoul of a moral principle that most of us (Singer and Newkirk, the father and mother of the “happy meat” movement ironically excluded) accept: all other things being equal, the fact that an action causes suffering and death to a sentient being places a burden on us to provide a justification; we should never hurt any sentient creature certainly without some very good reason. And our palate pleasure is no better a reason than Vick’s amusement watching dogs fight.
So why don’t we re-conceptualize the question and ask: is it better to torture sentient beings a tiny bit less or to eat foods that do not involve any suffering or death and that are better for our bodies and the planet?
The answer should be clear.
As a final point, I note that Newkirk says in response to Schonfeld’s criticism of PETA’s sexism:
As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can’t resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted?
Does Newkirk really think that sexism and the continued commodification of women in a world in which rape and sexual harassment happens every second of every day constitute “harmless antics”?
Does Newkirk really think that it’s a good idea to put a “smile” on people’s faces concerning the issue of sexism?
Does Newkirk really think that the slaughter of 56 billion animals per year (not counting fish) is an occasion for evoking a “smile”?
Should we have naked women raising money for Haiti so that people “smile”?
Would Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked in PETA’s latest ad that involves a woman of color stripping “for the animals,” ever have endorsed putting a “smile” on people’s faces by going naked rather than sitting in the back of the bus?
Again, Ingrid, the answers should be clear.
Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione