(This article is an original work of mine, written as part of my degree. Feel free to link to this page, but please do not re-post without my consent.)
The Birth of Animal Liberation
Before the 19th C animals were rarely included in the moral community (Francione, 2000:1). The traditional view of human dominion over the natural world, coupled with doubts about the cognitive abilities of animals, lead to their objectification by humans. The conventional belief in human dominion over animals – broadly speaking the notion that humans have a right to use the natural world and the animals within it as resources – originates from the teleological theories of the ancient world. Aristotle argued that animals are part of a natural order in which every element – both living and inanimate – has a purpose and that the highest earthly purpose is to provide for humanity. Within this teleological account, animals were a resource for humans, to be used for food, clothing and sport as necessary for humans to flourish (Aristotle, translated by Sinclair, 1962:40). This teleology was reflected in the biblical writings, particularly Genesis where it is claimed humanity is granted dominion over all other beings and thus the right to use fear and dread to subdue them for human ends (Genesis 1:28, 9:2). Divine providence cements the position of humans at the head of the natural world.
More contemporary beliefs have provided myriad justifications for human use of animals. Descartes famously held that animals were ‘living machines’ or automata, incapable of experiences. It was not like something to be an animal. If animals gave the impression of intelligence or awareness, perhaps signified by whimpers to demand attention from their owners or yelps when harmed, Descartes held that these responses were no more than the squeaking of a badly oiled gear or the ticking of a clock. He argued that animals lacked the behaviours necessary to indicate consciousness or reason. They did not behave as people do, responding to problems and challenges in the refined manners that would, Descartes believed, be necessary to indicate a mental life. Descartes believed that humans were the only animals to posses mental lives and subjective experiences because they were granted souls by God and his dualist theory of minds denied that animals had also been gifted with this incorporeal substance. Animals, in this view, were neither capable of having minds nor demonstrated the behaviours, such as language use, required to indicate the presence of a mind. For Descartes, animal behaviour could be adequately described and understood without affording animals minds, and so the simpler explanation should prevail. (See Descartes in Regan and Singer Eds., 1976:60-66).
Other philosophers have denied this mechanistic view of animals and have granted animals both minds and a range of experiences. However, there has been a consistent theme within moral philosophy to continue to deny animals a place in the moral community. Kant claimed that animals are not rational beings and although he did accept animal sentience (Francione, 2000:3), he denied that animals were self-concious (Kant in Regan and Singer Eds., 1976:122). The Kantian position shared Aristotle’s belief that animals are a means to human ends and that humans have no obligations owed directly to animals (Ibid.). Insofar as animals should be treated in a certain way, this was simply to safeguard humans either in terms of protecting their interests (such as property) or preventing humans being hardened toward each other as a result of being cruel to animals (Ibid.). Aside from the biblical dimension to Kant’s position, the reason for denying moral status to animals rests with the belief that animals are not rational and not able to take a role in the moral community as a result of that.
At the end of the 18th C, Jeremy Bentham advanced a view of the moral status of animals that dramatically deviated from the traditional thinking of his time. He drew away from view that animals should be denied moral status for teleological or biblical reasons, and rejected the thinking of Kant and Descartes that animals needed some higher cognitive characteristic (such as rationality or language use) to be included in the moral community. In a now famous passage, he wrote that:
The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (Bentham in Regan and Singer Eds., 1976:130)
For Bentham, possessing sentience – the capacity for suffering/pleasure – is enough for inclusion in the moral community. Animals have moral value, of some form, simply on the basis of the fact that what happens to them matters to them. Animals became 'someones' who had preferences and experiences and not 'somethings'. Crucially, Bentham denied that it was necessary to stop using animals or to afford them a right not to be treated as property, due to the belief that animals had no on-going sense of themselves in time. Bentham believed they lived in an eternal present, so death was not a harm for them. Thus, it was not necessary to stop killing them for human purposes, as long as they were not made to suffer (Ibid. 129). What Bentham was advanced was a humane treatment principle, based on a principle of equal consideration.
In order for any moral view to be consistent, it must have a system or mechanism to prevent arbitrary judgements and to promote relevant forms of equality within the system. A principle of equal consideration does this. According to the principle, all similar cases must be judged in a similar manner, and if cases are sufficiently similar in relevant ways, they get equal consideration (Francione, 2000:82-85). Combining the principle of equal consideration with a theory about which characteristics are relevant and which are not is the foundation for a moral theory.
Bentham put forward the idea that the relevant characteristic a being must posses in order to be afforded moral consideration was the ability to suffer (Bentham in Regan and Singer Eds., 1976:130). It doesn't matter what other characteristics the beings has - if a being can suffer then that is reason for taking that being into account when we make decisions that could affect that being. If are considering whether to train a dog or teach a parrot to swear, then other factors like the ability to learn and the ability to make vocalisations are relevant.
In order to suffer, a being must have some kind of experiences. Experiences, especially those that indicate whether things are going well or badly for a being, are a necessary pre-condition for having interests (Singer, 1995:7). If a being doesn't have experiences, it is not aware of what happens to it and does not have the information with which to form preferences about the kind of experiences it has. If a being doesn't have preferences or interests – if nothing that happens to the being makes a jot of difference to its welfare – then we don't need to take into account the impact of our actions on that being (Ibid. 7-8). By taking into account the suffering or enjoyment experienced by a being, we are not making an arbitrary judgement about which interests are relevant or not, we are ensuring that all interests are taken into account because the capacity for having interests is taken into account. The principle of equal consideration means that animal suffering must be taken into account alongside human suffering, and animal interests must be taken into account alongside human interests (Ibid. 8).
Attempts may be made to draw other lines to distinguish those beings who are included in the moral community from those who are not, but all face one major question; why is this characteristic or that relevant, and why should we draw the line here (or there). Attempts to draw the line at language, rationality, emotions, relationship forming and even species membership seems arbitrary (Singer, 1995:9). Why would these characteristics, or any other, make it acceptable to leave a being to the “caprice of a tormentor” (Bentham in Regan and Singer Eds., 1976:130)?
Any other line we might draw would likely be an expression of anthropocentrism, which puts non-humans at a distinct disadvantage (Francione, 2008:137-140). Why is my ability to (for example) think further into the future than my cats more important than the fact that my cats can see, hear and smell far better than I can? Human self-interest taints the process, drawing lines further away and higher up so that we may continue to view at least some animals as outside of the moral community and thus objects we may view as resources (Ibid. 137-141). The inherent problem with self-interest – the notion that we only protect and afford rights to beings like us and include beings like us in the moral community – is the question of where it stops. Species membership seems like convenient lines that distinguishes us from them, but why not draw the line further up? Why not include only citizens of a certain race or nation, or gender or sexuality? It seems rather implausible to suppose that humans should or do care about other humans simply because they share sufficiently similar DNA. The entire history of warfare and human rights abuses would seem to support this implausibility.
It is sentience, the capacity for suffering and enjoyment and thus interests, that is the baseline for moral consideration (Singer, 1995:8).
Animal sentience is both widely accepted and conforms to our common sense view of the world. As Tom Regan says, “what could be more obvious than that cats like stroking, dogs feel hungry, elks sense danger and eagles spy their prey?” (Regan, 2004:2). Our everyday interactions with animals reflect this common sense idea that animals share at least some of the experiences that we do. When we play 'fetch' with a dog, whisper to calm a startled pony or reprimand a nippy kitten, we act as though the animal is aware of itself and us, and able to be amused, soothed or trained by our actions. Our language also reflects this common sense view – when we comment on the desires or wants of an animal, this isn't met with the surprise that we would expect if we had made a statement such as “the Washington Monument is thirsty” (Regan, 2004:2). Nonetheless, there is a great deal of skepticism about animal sentience, in part due to the difficulties with getting animals to report the presence and content of their private experiences (if they have any). In order to establish whether animals are members of the moral community, it is essential to establish whether there is sufficient evidence for animal sentience. Accounts of animal sentience tend to consider three approaches; behaviour, physiology and evolution. All three come from an understanding of human experiences and attempt to tease out the relevant similarities between humans and other animals.1
Peter Harrison (1991) takes these three approaches to animal sentience and attempts to show how each presents a weak case. In response to the claim that animals behave in a manner consistent with suffering and sentience, he highlights the conceptual possibility of a machine that totally lacks sentience but that nonetheless exhibits convincing 'pain behaviours'. He also mentions instances where animals exhibit 'pain behaviours' when they have not received 'pain stimuli', using these as further examples of the gulf between actual pain and the kind of behaviours we might associate with it. He claims that 'pain behaviours' are a sign of environmental adaptation in animals and not “primarily and expression of some internal state” (27).
However, surely if machines could in theory mimic animal behaviours, they could also conceivably mimic humans if adequately programmed? Do we doubt the mentation of other humans on the basis that human behaviour, even language use, could be convincingly copied? A second reply to to Harrison is that humans are capable of faking reactions to pain and even intentionally lying about whether they are in pain. To doubt all animal pain on the basis of faked pain is to doubt all human pain on the basis that we can lie about pain. Thirdly, that 'pain behaviours' are often adaptive does not entail that pain is not felt. Alan Carter (2005) takes the case for adaptive 'pain behaviour' and argues that instances where 'pain behaviour' is counter-productive to survival (i.e. is maladaptive) actually demonstrate that it is not the behaviour which is adaptive but the cause – pain. The ability to feel pain is, according to Carter, a positive adaptation that occasionally and unfortunately produces maladaptive responses.
Harrison turns his attention to the physiological argument. He makes two important claims; that instances of non-concious experiences in humans open up the possibility that animal experiences are non-concious and that many animals do not in fact have sufficiently similar physiology to humans for us to reliably afford them similar mental lives. To defend his view he discusses cases in which brain damaged humans nonetheless show relatively normal mental functioning, including one individual who lacked a visual cortex and yet reported good visual perception. Such cases do indeed show that the mind-body link is complex and still confounds us, but he then goes on to say that it is unlikely that birds have similar visual experiences to us due to their lack of a visual cortex. Surely what this demonstrates is that no one brain structure has a monopoly on certain mental functions. Like brain structures may yet indicate like mental states and it does not follow from that that certain mental states require specific brain structures that do not vary significantly between species.
In response to the view that non-concious mental states in humans indicate the possibility of non-conscious mental states in animals, we must agree. This is indeed a possibility. However, humans acting in response to non-concious states (such as 'blindsight') are rather hap-hazard and less precise in their actions (Griffin, 2001:161). Given accuracy and sureness of animal interactions with their world, it seems unlikely that they are like the 'blindsight' patient. Griffin also reports that monkeys have been trained to perform 'blindsight' trials by teaching them to reach to stimuli and then surgically impairing part of their field of vision. They learned to report the stimuli in the impaired field, albeit as long as the stimuli was more powerful than when they had full vision. Most importantly, they were then taught to make a 'no stimuli' sign and would consistently do so when presented with stimuli in their impaired field, making an effective contrast between their different experiences and giving us at least some cause to think they must have concious experiences if they reported 'no stimuli' when previously they had reacted to the 'hidden' stimuli (Ibid.). If anything, this case shows that animals can also have 'blindsight' and not that normal animal functioning is similar to 'blindsight'.
Finally, Harrison suggests we might appeal to parsimony on the basis that we may be able to account for animal reactions to harmful stimuli without proposing the ontological burden of sentience onto the theory. However, the same appeal to parsimony can surely be used to deny mentation in other humans, much like the behaviour mimicking machine example could also be applied to humans. It is rather simpler to assume that other humans are either figments of the imagination or at best biological machines that run according to an elaborate program. Any appeal to ontological simplicity must surely extend to our own species, for it is conceivable that even the most refined and elaborate human behaviours such as language use can be replicated by carefully programmed computers (Regan, 2004:9-10). The appeal to parsimony also suffers when it is used to require two different theories for how the behavioural, physiological and evolutionary facts apply to humans and animals. It is far simpler to produce one theory to cover both situations, assuming they are genuinely relevantly similar.
While Harrison has shown that cases for animal sentience are not water-tight, these cases still seem to provide us with reasons to recognise mentation in animals, especially in light of our constantly developing understanding of animal science (see Rollin, 1989 and Griffin, 2001). It would seem rather odd if humans and animals exhibited relevantly similar behaviour (aversive reactions to harmful stimuli), shared relevantly similar physiological traits (central nervous systems comprised of brains, nerves and sensory organs), had relevantly similar chemical reactions to physiological events (release of hormones and chemicals in the brain that calm or reduce the effects of pain) and came to be through the same process of mutation and adaptation (evolution), and yet humans were the only species to have developed sentience.
In fact, the consequences of failing to attribute animals sentience if they do indeed have it are rather dire. If mistakenly excluded from the moral community on this basis, animals may be wilfully harmed and abused with no consideration for their welfare. Given the remaining problems with proving animal sentience one way or the other, we are left to make a choice based on what is most reasonable to believe and what the consequences of each view would be. Even skeptics about animal sentience such as Harrison recognise that the most prudent course of action may be to give animals the benefit of the doubt and to be cautious in our dealings with them.
Intrinsic Value and Basic Rights
We seem to have good reasons to think that animals are not mere things but instead 'someones', with their own minds, preferences and needs. When we directly and indirectly interact with animals, we have a duty to actively extend the principle of equal consideration to them and not simply treat in a manner that suits us, as a means to our ends.
How then, do we go about taking their interests into account? The first step is to recognise their intrinsic value as sentient beings. The reason they have value is because of who and what they are, because of qualities intrinsic to them. If we afford animals only instrumental value, that is to say value by virtue of their usefulness and value to others, we make a categorical error. We would be saying that animals only have the value that we give them, which would be to reject that the principle of equal consideration applies to them. Once we realise that animals have more than instrumental value, we are compelled to consider the interests of animals when we act. Our concerns are not simply for the consequences of our actions for ourselves and other humans, but also for the impact of our actions on animals, a concern that is owed directly to them. The practical upshot of correctly categorising animals as 'someones' and not 'somethings' is that we must cease to view them as resources for our exploitation.
One way of protecting animal interests is to give them rights. By stating a right to something, be that a right to vote or a right to not be treated as a thing, we are saying that the interest in question is ring-fenced and that we must have a very good reason indeed for overriding it. Rights compel us not to ignore the interests they protect and are only overridden in situations where there is a very genuine conflict of rights, such as Regan's 'Dog in the Lifeboat' (1985) or Francione's 'Burning House' (2000:151-160). When we say that sentient beings should not be viewed exclusively as a means to an end and that their interests require us to apply the principle of equal consideration to them, we are saying that they have a basic right to have their interests taken into account and not to be valued exclusively as a thing (Francione, 2000:92-98).
Gary Francione argues that if we are to properly afford animals intrinsic value and a basic right not to be treated as things, we must cease to see them as legitimate subjects of ownership. Francione argues that as property, animals are afforded no value other than that which their owner gives them (Francione, 2000:54). Their value largely is commercial or sentimental – instrumental – and not intrinsic. Owners are generally permitted to use the animal in a variety of ways – for personal or economic gain, as part of a contract, as collateral for a loan, etc. (Ibid.). For some animals, their use and death for profit or pleasure is part and parcel of being owned and their interests are very minimally defended in law, to the extent that the legitimacy of inflicting of great pain and suffering onto the animals is both socially and legally considered necessary and expedient (Francione, 2000:58-63). Francione argues ownership of animals enables their exploitation and that if we are going to stop exploiting them, we must cease to view them as property. Animal ownership is not compatible with affording them the right to not be treated as a thing.
A possible counter to this view is to claim that abuse and exploitation are contingent but not necessary aspects of ownership. It is possible, one might argue, to own something and yet be required by morality or law to give it equal consideration of interests, to be the 'perfect owner' that recognises the intrinsic value of animals and rejects the idea that their value is instrumental. Such a 'perfect owner' would not only treat the property animal well, but would reject all rights over the animal, instead acting for the benefit of the animal. Where the animal is restrained, has pain inflicted or otherwise treated in a manner that it is uncomfortable with, this is perhaps because tying it up or caging it prevents it from coming to harm or perhaps because an uncomfortable or painful medical treatment is necessary to ensure its health or recovery from sickness. Treating an animal in a way that violates some of its interests is only acceptable where other, more fundamental interests of the animal are safeguarded by that action, and not acceptable where the animals interests are being forfeited for the pleasure or profit of the owner. For a discussion of emergency situations, see Chapter 7 of Francione's Introduction to Animal Rights (2000:151-166).
If the concept of the 'perfect owner' is coherent, it validates the claim that exploitation is a contingent rather than necessary aspect of ownership. However, such a claim leaves a number of concerns. If the owner is 'perfect' (i.e. totally fulfilling their a moral duties to the animal including the duty not to view them as a means to an end), then it is by virtue of waiving certain rights over the animal that categorise ownership. If someone is an owner, they have the right to use the animal in certain ways, such as for economic gain. Their rights may be tempered by law (e.g. they may be legally required not to be cruel to the animal) but they nonetheless have some kind of rights over the animal. If they didn't, they would not be an owner. Duties owed to animals, to give them equal consideration and to not view them exclusively as a means to an end, are not tied up in the nature of ownership, coming instead from additional moral imperatives. If we say that the 'perfect owner' is on moral ground only if they reject rights over the animal, then we have a position where rights over animals are defended by defending the ownership relation, but the owner is compelled to reject them. In effect, the owner has 'immoral rights' that they must not 'cash in'.
In order to maintain that it is morally acceptable to own animals, we must describe an owner who is an owner only in name, but not in nature. The nature of the relationship between the 'perfect owner' and the animal is in fact the nature of a guardian-ward relationship, where the duties owed to the animal are part and parcel of the relation, and not additional to it. In fact, ownership of animals is the only kind of ownership where duties are owed to the property, because they are the only property objects that have interests. The only way to properly deal with the residual 'ownership rights' to exploit animal property is to not require that individual owners consistently waive their rights over animals, but to reject the rights themselves and with them the ownership relation. In accepting guardian-ward relationships as the proper way for humans to relate to animals they are responsible for, we are simply giving the proper name to the so-called 'perfect owner'. An owner that is compelled to consistently recognise the rights of their property and in doing so compelled not to treat the property as property is not a coherent concept.
It may be objected that ownership of animals is a way of entrenching responsibilities towards them into the law and ensuring that societies recognise which humans are responsible for which animals. However, this is adequately fulfilled by legalised guardianship of animals. The only complication left is when the owner/guardian can best serve the interests of both themselves and the animal by passing on responsibility, but this is no more of a problem for animals than it is for children or other human dependants. There are ways and means of ensuring that guardians or parents of children do not come to grief and do not cause suffering to their wards without requiring that we legitimise the sale or trade of humans. There are also ways of obtaining human wards without buying or trading for them, for example via foster schemes or adoption. This kind of relationship is best suited to fulfilling our duties to the animals we are responsible for because it is not only adequate, it avoids the incoherence of requiring owners to waive rights of ownership.
Food for Thought
What does this view about the inclusion of animals in the moral community mean for the real-world relationship between humans and animals?
According to the UN statistics for Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2007), nearly 56 billion animals are slaughtered around the world in order to produce meat and other animal products for food, every year. These are just the recorded numbers and do not take into account the aquatic animals killed annually for food or as by-catch from the fishing industry. The numbers of fish and other aquatic animals that are wild-caught and bred in fisheries annually is over 140 million tons a year, around the world, according to the FAO (2008). The number of individual aquatic animals killed is unrecorded. These animals are farmed, harvested and used for human benefit. It would be absurd to claim that by treating animals in this manner we were not using them instrumentally. These animals not only die to fulfil human interests, but tens of billions of them are intentionally created by humans so that they may be used as resources.
It is increasingly accepted by the medical community that humans are capable of thriving on a diet that totally omits animal products (see Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and American Dietetic Association). In light of the fact that we don't need to eat animals or farm them for their products, we cannot claim a legitimate conflict of interest between animals and humans when we consider whether or not to use them for food. Any situation in which animal products and flesh are required to live healthfully is covered by emergency considerations but we must be careful to avoid applying 'emergency' situations too liberally, and especially to situations where we inconvenienced by the task of planning an appropriate diet or sourcing appropriate non-animal alternatives. In refusing to take into account the right of animals not to be treated as things, we not only value them instrumentally in the way that we might value dentists and fire-fighters but we also deny them their intrinsic value.
The imperative to avoid harm to animals and to treat them as members of the moral community also applies to our use of animals for clothing, research, product testing and entertainment. It also calls upon us to cautious when we consider environmental interventions such as culls and other forms of population control. By affording animals a basic right not to be treated as a thing or a resource, we are developing an abolitionist view of animal liberation – a view that says we must work to abolish the instrumental use of animals by humans.
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