The Animal Rights Q and A list
should I care about animal rights?"
There are health and environmental reasons to be concerned
about the treatment of non human life and how it can impact human society, but
in terms of basic philosophy, if you believe that one should try to be as
compassionate and fair as possible to others, then one should apply the same
ethical principle of fairness and justice that many of us have come to assume in
our relationship with other humans to our relationship with non-human life.
Throughout history human societies have considered members of
their group (defined by race, gender, wealth, religion, language, etc) more
important than those regarded as outsiders, and discriminated according to
various standards of value conveniently determined by those who stand to benefit
from the discrimination.
If you believe that humans can discriminate against and
exploit other life because they are superior in value as a species to all others
you have to be able to show this supremacy to be true as an absolute, objective
fact, or anyone can use similar non absolute, subjective criteria from religion
to gender to skin colour to justify discriminating against anyone else (human or
not). The fact that these standards of moral worth that favor humans
("reason", "free will," "immortal soul,"
"moral comprehension," "evolutionary selection."
"Divine blessing," etc) can be doubted and questioned (i.e. what makes
"reason" or free will" or a "Divine blessing"
important?) suggests that they are no more objective or absolute than the
standards of value used by racial and religious supremacists (what makes"
skin colour" or a specific interpretation of " Scripture"
important?). The only other choice one has, in order to have a consistent
belief in human rights that closes the loopholes for racists, bigots etc., is to
extend this circle of compassion and ethical justice to include non-human living
beings. At the most basic level, it isnt about love, or emotion, but ethical
consistency and common sense and trying to be as fair and as compassionate as
possible to others, as opposed to the alternative.
"But arent humans superior in value to other species because we
possess higher mental abilities? We can reason."
The problem is that all the standards of value used--"the faculty of reason," "free will," "a soul," "my deity says so," etc. are subject to doubt, not only in how each applies to all humans vs all non humans, but also in their absolute objective significance. Some humans are more intelligent or creative or faster or taller than some others--does that mean that the more intelligent or creative or taller ones deserve more rights than those who are less intelligent or creative or tall? If not, why? The standard can be doubted, just as it can be for the arguments of racial supremacists. For the sake of argument, however, if every human did possess a faculty x that other species lack, why then would this "faculty x " make them superior in value--and then free to do what they want to those who do not possess it?
It is a purely human value and claim. We say it is so, so it is so.
The standard of "Reason" is subjective. It is a value judgement that only has discernable value to humans (just as skin color only has importance to racists, or a certain interpretation of the Bible only has worth to religious extremists). The universe itself cannot be shown to "favor" humans over non-humans since our kind is just as mortal as any other species. Erupting volcanoes do not alter their lava flows to spare humans; hailstorms do not drop their rocks of ice on everything but humans; and sharks do not get paralyzed jaws if they attempt to bite a human swimmer (in violation of some law of Physics that recognizes human supremacy). If a basic observation of Nature does not show how humans are superior (according to absolute and objective criteria) and deserving of special treatment, then what does?
"But many religions say humans are superior. It says so in the
If one says that humans are superior as a species according to the will
of a Supreme Deity, how do you prove it? If you cite a Divinely-inspired
religious book written down by individuals who conveniently, are members of the
very group that stands to benefit from the discrimination, then anyone else can
emphasize race, or gender, or wealth instead of (or in addition to) species and
claim that the same deity (or another one) decided that theirs is the ultimate
measure of value for determining superiority. Such disagreements cannot be
objectively resolved—and they must be to avoid hypocrisy and moral corruption.
To be a universal/absolute/objective truth it has to be the final answer to the
question; it has to be beyond doubt (for how can the absolute be questioned?).
Where then is this objective superiority of human beings demonstrated?
Nowhere. We say it is so, so it is so.
How then can the human supremacist argue, using ethics, that what he says is so,
is superior to what the racist says is so?
The only choices that he/she has to preserve moral integrity is to agree that
anyone should be able to discriminate against whomever they want (i.e. this
would allow both human and non human exploitation), or to extend the circle of
compassion and ethical justice to include non-human living beings. This would
preserve the principle of trying to be as compassionate and as fair as possible
to others. At the most fundamental level it isn't about love, or emotion, but
ethical consistency and common sense.
about plants? If you eat them you are killing anyway. You cannot avoid
The issue is not about avoiding all killing but avoiding it as much as possible. No ethical view--no matter how consistent--can take into account the interests of everyone at all times. One can certainly say the line of moral regard is not drawn at animals--that it is wrong to exploit trees and other plants (an argument found in the philosophy of Fruitarianism). If there are problems in implementing such a policy, then it is true of all potential beneficiaries of moral conduct (i.e. you may live on land that was once occupied by others who were driven off or killed due to colonial aggression; or pay taxes to a government that uses the money to finance wars, or use drugs that were tested on unwilling human patients in Africa etc.). No one can be perfect, either in compassion or cruelty BUT the failure to be morally perfect does not then mean one has to fall back to some safe line like species to focus one's discrimination practices. If you argue for that--then there is no reason why someone else cannot draw the line at race, or religion, or intelligence instead of, or, in addition to species. Thus, the need to prove human supremacy still exists. The human supremacist is shackled to it.
All you can do as a compassionate person is to try your
best according to each situation, following a moral standard that endeavors to
be fair and just--allowing you to be as compassionate as possible, as opposed to
If humans have a biological impulse to "stick together," then how does one account for crime and murder? Humans do not lock their doors at night to keep out pit bulls. If we have a biological impulse to put the interests of our species before that of all others, then why are there cases of people leaving all their money to a pig or a dog; why have humans been known to risk their own lives for strangers and non humans; and in some cases inanimate or non-material objects(i.e. gold, money, political ideology, etc)? Human actions are not governed by any mechanistic drive that regulates moral worth according to some predetermined value code based upon a universal "great chain of being"–if they were, groups like Earth First, the SPCA, PETA and ALF would not exist, and neither would this discussion. It can also be noted that relying on such a mechanistic/biological argument to justify discrimination and exploitation can allow someone else to argue that humans have a tenacious moral instinct to favor their own kind over others—but with the discrimination based upon race or nationality or religion instead of species.
you were passing by a river in which a dog and a child were drowning, who would
you try to save?"
In most desperate situations, people will save whomever they can save; they don't measure and qualify the recipients of care. It may be true that as a human, one would feel a more urgent need and bond with another human who is drowning, but in principle, that situation would be no different if the argument were redefined to focus on race, language or gender instead of species. If you are white and you see a white man and a non-white man drowning, who are you more likely to feel a bond towards? What if one spoke your language but the other didn't? What if one was a close relative, the other a stranger? If you chose to save the more familiar individual, does that mean you endorse a policy-based, industrial, "factory farm" exploitation of the human group that is not given priority? If the answer is no, then it should be equally true for non-human groups when they are not given priority either.
is inherently cruel and selfish. Thus, humans should be too. It is survival of
concept of cruelty is subjective. Nature cannot be proven to be cruel or
compassionate--it just is. Anything else is a projection of human beliefs and
sentiments onto a non-human subject. There is no way to make an absolute
verification of such beliefs. But--for the sake of argument--let us say that
Nature is inherently cruel. Then why should humans care any more about human
rights than they do about non human rights? There are dictators around the world
that have lived very comfortable lives while they tortured and killed other
humans. According to the argument of the human supremacist, they are just living
according to Nature. Humans have raped, murdered, enslaved and stolen from each
other for thousands of years. It is still true today. These acts would seem to
be permissible according to Nature--why then should we try to stop them? If you
try to argue "well, because stopping them has mutual benefit for all
humans," the fact is that some humans--those with power--have done quite
well without worrying about "all humans." So "mutual
benefit" is not proven. The true harshness of Nature implied by this
argument also applies to human situations. To deny this is to be either
emotional (as animal activists are often accused of being), or hypocritical.
On the issue of non human cruelty, other species have been known to engage in acts that would be considered cruel, but there is no evidence that they, unlike humans, are aware that they are causing members of other species to suffer--and take pleasure from knowing it. Cats or weasels have not been observed to set up arenas or stadiums in the wild or back alleys where they sit around watching as other cats and weasels torture mice-as some humans have been known to find pleasure and amusement from watching others suffer. For a cat to be aware that a mouse suffers, and then to derive pleasure from its suffering, would be to project very human characteristics onto the cat, while conveniently denying them the same capacity for benevolence (as there are cases of non human animals exhibiting altruistic tendencies, adopting members of other species, etc). Only humans are known to be capable of mental torment. Using language to tease and torture others. Thus, while Nature can be cruel, there is no better example of that than the human capacity for cruelty.
we have to honor animal rights then animals have to honor ours."
Other species need to kill other species to survive. It is
impossible as far as we know to stop lions from eating gazelles, birds from
eating worms, and spiders from eating flies, and microorganisms from eating
other microbes. Anyone who doubts this is welcome to try to police the rest of
the Natural world and prevent violence and killing. It may be better to focus on
the one species that we can (at least in the principle)--influence to change its
behavior: human. Only humans as far as we know, have considered a concept of
ethics and rights--which they endeavor to communicate to others. This is a
practical matter. Other species function and survive in relative harmony--and
have no need to employ ethicists. Humans on the other hand, have decided that
the conduct of human beings needs to be controlled to ensure a civilized
As for the issue of reciprocal ethical conduct--who says caring for others has to be reciprocal? We don't expect children, or the mentally retarded to be able to grasp concepts of law and morality to be granted protection and respect--so why expect the same from non humans who are similarly incapable of understanding human morality concepts? If it is unfair and unreasonable to expect a blind man to be able to read road signs just as well as a seeing man is able to, then the same should be true for a lion who cannot think like a human.
about First Nations people? They hunt and fish and kill animals too."
Self-preservation is a different issue from species preservation, or the belief that humans as a species are superior in value to all other life. If a thief confronted a civil rights worker/poverty activist, and the worker/activist defended him or herself, would that mean that he or she does not believe in human rights? The answer should be no different for an animal activist.
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