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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I am bored, and hence I am doing what any respectable person might on a rainy Wednesday night:: Reading Animal Rights FAQs. I just can’t really get my mind around the moral philosophy people like this try to espouse – so I went through and tried to find any coherent framework within which to justify the notion that animals have rights. What I found was largely a series of “refutations,” but also some arguments towards what the animal rights (AR herein) people believe to be ethical. So I want to look at a few of the things they’ve said.

The fundamental principle of the AR movement is that nonhuman animals deserve to live according to their own natures, free from harm, abuse, and exploitation. This goes further than just saying that we should treat animals well while we exploit them, or before we kill and eat them. It says animals have the RIGHT to be free from human cruelty and exploitation, just as humans possess this right. The withholding of this right from the nonhuman animals based on their species membership is referred to as "speciesism".

This is one of those things which really does sound, one some level, valid. It sounds like they know what they’re talking about. After all, who among us would promote suffering? That’s crazy! But not quite so crazy as they make it out to be. The objection I originally had, way back when I wrote a paper on it for my freshman ethics class, is that nobody, not Singer, not Regan, nor anyone else I’ve heard of, has ever actually defined to any satisfactory degree what the hell they mean by “suffering” and “pain.” I realize it’s very much a “dodge the question” way of looking at it, but the reason a lot of discourse stops is because most of the AR arguments are predicated upon the precept that animals experience pain, and that moreover, that experience is morally significant.

The criterion they give are:
Singer quotes three criteria for deciding if an organism has the capacity to suffer from pain: 1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience of pain.

This is an interesting rubric they draw up, since if they mean that, then really the only criterion they actually offer is “are there behavioral indications?” since the second is basically entailed by their being behavioral indications (otherwise, what would “an appropriate nervous system” be? One which acts well at dinner parties?) and the evolutionary usefulness is also pretty uniformly entailed by behavior having evolved. What species would NOT have evolved pain responses in a way which took them out of danger or harm? So they basically ask: are there behavioral indicators which might suggest to us that an organism can suffer from pain? The question you need to ask yourself is: why does this preclude anything mobile? The pain response is evoked when you put paramecium in an overly acidic or basic solution, and they attempt to move away from the area to a better pH. On a very fundamental level, a carbon monoxide detector would be morally relevant under this standard.

Behaviorism as a moral philosophy is sort of an absurd one, but even if we posit it for a moment, why is this something we want to pay attention to? Is “suffering” as denoted by something trying to remove itself from danger or potential harm really what we want to hinge a system of ethics on? And moreover, realize that this would justify harming anything which doesn’t actively behave in such a way which suggests this amorphous “pain” reaction. Nonmobile animals which have complex nervous systems, or even a paraplegic with some advanced spinal injuries, are no longer relevant for moral consideration, while a grasshopper or an ant is. This is an insipid standard.

The converse of this is the hypocrisy that is inherent in such a notion. It’s just as arbitrary to say “we won’t harm any being which is sentient” as it is to say “we won’t harm any creature which has a gangleonic nervous system and mobility.” If a turtle should be considered for the purpose of morality, why not a grasshopper? Why not a paramecium? Aren’t they getting just a little bit ”speciest”?

Oh, but there’s more. One of the primary arguments made by the FAQ writers is against moral relativism, saying flat out that they do not believe that individuals should be able to make judgements based on what they believe are correct. They then go on to say:
One should decide, based upon available evidence and one's own conscience, where the line should be drawn to adhere to the principle of AR…

Either they want to have a coherent philosophy which utilizes an objective set of who is and is not a moral agent, or they do not. I realize this is a relatively minor lapse, but it’s telling that, when it comes down to it, the AR people aren’t even able to really give a compelling, let alone proven, argument as to what constitutes someone deserving of consideration.

This glaring issue of the inability to define the central terms of their own ethics as well as an inability to determine to whom their ad hoc system ought to apply notwithstanding, they also have one other big issue. They fail to offer a morally superior alternative. This would normally not be such a huge deal, as philosophy is notorious for giving arguments with absolutely no basis in reality, but just structurally, what they’re trying to say doesn’t really apply in a modern world.

Consider for a moment that everyone on the face of the planet accepts that causing the deaths of animals, or being complicit therein, is a moral harm on par with murdering a human being. The following consequences have to be considered: First, pesticides can no longer be used, in any circumstances, on crops. This means that farmers would need to overproduce by vast amounts in order to make up for the lost crops to things like locusts and beetles and the like. The implication would of course be that much more undeveloped land would need to be taken for farming, destroying the habitat of whatever lived there, but it also leads to an absolute increase in the amount of farm land.

As it stands, food is relatively inexpensive because of things like subsidies and mass farming. A byproduct of having these large agribusinesses tends to be that much of the labor is mechanized – we use huge combines for harvesting wheat, rather than the old scythe method, for example. A major problem with this is that, every time you go over a huge field with readily available food with a number of quickly spinning blades, you end up killing and maiming literally millions of animals. So we can no longer use this sort of machinery to harvest the vegetables which we’re going to eat, resulting directly in the creation of a migrant farm worker industry which we haven’t seen in this country, or really this planet, in over a century. The result? Huge increases in the price of foods, as well as distribution issues, and all sorts of other problems. By reverting to technologies which ensure that we will not be killing mammals, we essentially guarantee that a large segment of the human population is no longer eating. Given the problems already in the third world with starvation and famine, I don’t know that this is a morally superior solution.

The rebuttal to this is of course “Well, we’d have all that land and all these resources which are no longer being used for factory farming!” This is just silly. A majority of the corn and such grown currently on this type of land is not fit for human consumption. You cannot replenish the nutrients needed for human health in a field in one season, but you can if it’s for cattle consumption and the like. I’m sick of hearing about the “wasted resources” which go in to providing the compact source of fats and calories which is meat.

The only other sort of reasoning we get is argument by analog, something which perpetually fails to make any goddamn sense. AR people seemingly can’t resist drawing parallels between animals and babies/coma patients/old people and so on and so forth. This is the “But… animals are as smart as INFANTS. That means they deserve ALL moral consideration, yes?” argument. The issue is that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. People perpetually mix up the reason behind giving a certain class of beings rights. The reasons we allow for really retarded folks and babies to have rights are manifold. Part of it is that they fall under the auspices of other rights bearing individuals, part of it is that they will in the future become sentient, but the real thing is that there’s no bright line which can be drawn. There isn’t really a point at which you can say “This baby is sentient, this baby is not.” So in an effort to be overly inclusive, we just say “okay, all humans get ‘em.” It’s structural, not substantive.

The other distinction that isn’t made on nearly a regular enough basis is what is socially banned, and what is morally banned. There are plenty of things which are included in the protection of the laws which are only justified inasmuch as they are incidental to the implementation of logical ideals.

This isn’t to say I necessarily think that being a vegetarian is a bad idea. I obviously have little to no regard for my own health, but I’ve heard that, when done correctly, vegetarianism can be a healthy and cheap alternative to the omnivore lifestyle. The thing I have a general problem with is people trying to justify their own personal beliefs and desires by pretending they are huge moral stances, worthy of univeralization. People are not content to believe they have made the correct choice for themselves; they somehow need the validation of knowing that they’re participating in the universally correct action. You find the same fervor in religious zealots who have a little too much doubt and not quite enough faith. They want EVERYONE to believe as they do, because they do not know that they’ve made the right choice – they realize what they’re missing and want a piece of the action elsewhere. It’s a horribly destructive mindset, though one which has been pervasive for many, many years.

I can understand the misguided empathy people tend to read into this sort of situation. I can understand that people see a cow “suffering”, and their natural mechanism is to assume that the cow feels as they do. People perpetually read human characteristics into animals as well as nature and other universals – even going so far, in some cases, as to talk about the “choice” an electron makes and the like. There’s a fine line between descriptive language, and misrepresenting reality. And when it comes to the nourishment of millions of people, the cost of food, and the manner in which we grant moral consideration to individual actors, it seems as if this line becomes a whole lot more important. I wish AR people would understand that there are plenty of arguments they can make as to why people should be vegetarians, but not a convincing one as to why society ought to be.

cranked out at 5:35 PM | |

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