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The Animal Rights Q and A list


Common questions

"Why 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.


"But humans are more important than animals."

 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 Bible."

 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.



"What about plants? If you eat them you are killing anyway. You cannot avoid killing."

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 the alternative.


"Humans have a natural impulse or tenacious moral instinct to stick together and protect their own kind."


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.


"If 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.


"Nature is inherently cruel and selfish. Thus, humans should be too. It is survival of the fittest."


The 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.

"If 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 existence. 

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.



"What about First Nations people? They hunt and fish and kill animals too."

Since they are humans they should be subject to the same rights and obligations as any other humans, according to basic principles of fairness and justice. It has absolutely nothing to do with cultural imperialism as some may charge—since the concept of being fair and compassionate to others is universal, and the most basic animal rights argument is merely a logical extension of that principle.  If it is ethically wrong for human groups to engage in human slavery, cannibalism, oppression of women and children, then the same should be true for their interaction with other species. While one may draw a distinction between industrialized agriculture and subsistence hunting, the fact is that no human group in the 21st century needs to kill other animals for food--period. If we can put a man on the Moon, and design a computer that can play chess, then we can provide daily sustenance for all humans without resorting to harpoon, hook, and gun. Arguments for tribal tradition and independence are easily quashed by the fact that human slavery and human sacrifice were also traditions for some native cultures, and few if any First Nations peoples live without some connection to outside society (attending whaling conferences, using firearms, electricity etc). This is true even for the Inuit in the Arctic. Unlike polar bears, wolves, seals, and whales, who all are born with the equipment they need to survive, humans (First nations or not) would perish in mere minutes if left naked on the ice flows of the region where animal killing is said to be the only survival option. Since humans do not need to live in these climates (biologically, their bodies are not equipped for it), they do not need to hunt or fish. If an Inuit is naturally meant to hunt, as is frequently claimed by defenders of exploitation industries that use First Nations communities for supplies or propaganda (i.e. whaling, sealing and trapping), then its factual validity can be tested by simply having one brave Inuit hunter jump naked into the Arctic sea and try to bite a seal to death with only his teeth and bare hands. The outcome would speak for itself on the issue of whether First Nations people or any humans should hunt and fish.

"If you were attacked by a lion/snake/dog/rat/boar/gorilla etc, would you defend yourself? And if you did, wouldn't that prove you believe humans are superior in value to other animals?"

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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