Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals: What Philosophers Say About Animal Liberation

Book Review: Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals: What Philosophers Say About Animal Liberation - by Angus Taylor (Broadview Press 1999)

This excellent book makes a very good attempt to cover all the arguments for and against animal rights and animal liberation. Topics covered include animal experimentation, sport hunting, meat eating and raising, factory farming, and reconciling animal liberation and environmental ethics. Related topics covered are the ethics of cloning and genetic manipulation of animals.

My own views on the subject are intuitive, practical, and are based on compassion and feasibility. This book is mostly about philosophical views and concerns mainly the moral status of animals. Interestingly, the author notes that only recent philosophers have been concerned (in their writings at least) with the moral status of animals. Modern moral philosophers have done much to encourage animal liberation and activism. Australian philosopher Peter Singer popularized the term ‘animal liberation’ in his 1975 book called Animal Liberation. He compared animal liberation to the women’s liberation of the time period and suggested that it is the next step in our moral evolution. Singer sees unjustifiable discrimination against animals as ‘speciesism’, akin to racism or sexism. This notion has been controversial since animals can’t articulate their needs and have obvious differences from humans. Taylor points out that there are differences in the viewpoints of animal liberationists but they do have some common ground:

“Though advocates of animal liberation differ in their particular viewpoints and in the arguments they advance in support of those viewpoints, they agree that animals must no longer be treated essentially as resources for human use.”

He also notes that the animal liberation movement is a bit different than the animal welfare movement in that it seeks to change our fundamental relationship with animals while the animal welfare movement stresses better treatment of animals within the confines of continuing to view animals as resources for human use.

Key to determining the moral status of animals is defining their human-like qualities such as their degree of sentience, or self-awareness, and their ability to experience pain, fear, and suffering. There is much variation and disagreement in this regard. Animal liberationists consider animals as members of the moral community. Others define the moral community differently, often in terms of moral agents – those who are able to make choices based on an understood moral code, which would exclude animals. Others say the difference in moral agency is one of degree, that humans simply have a greater degree of moral agency than animals. Some liberationists, like Peter Singer, are utilitarians, who do not think in terms of rights or duties of a moral community. In light of this Taylor suggests that a better way to define the moral community would be:

“all those whose interests should receive the same consideration of our similar interests.”

Both the utilitarian view and the rights view tend to see the treatment of animals to be based on their interests. Another view, that of the contractarian, regards morality as an agreement but most often excludes the interests of animals, so that the idea of animal liberation is generally disregarded by them. Bernard Rollin notes that each animal has a telos, or intrinsic nature, that should be respected. This intrinsic nature gives them a place in the overall moral community.

There is a quick overview of traditional religious/ethical views on animal. Famed Christian writers, Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reiterated the most popular Christian doctrine that animals were put on earth by God for the use of humans. Francis of Assisi (who was influenced by Sufis incidentally) is an exception to this trend as he noted that esteeming animals is a way of honoring God. Nowadays there are a few Christians that promote animal liberation but most do not. It is the same for Judaism and Islam, though Judaism does forbid causing undue harm to animals beyond human or medical needs. Chinese philosophy (Confucianism and Taoism) generally see humans as a higher form of animal so the difference in moral commitment is one of degree and one is encouraged to avoid causing the suffering of animals unless necessary. Indian thought in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism highly values the idea of non-harming (ahimsa). Buddhism and Jainism are credited with the decline of the previously widespread practice of animal sacrifice in India. Vegetarianism is now quite widespread in India and a significant part of spiritual discipline there. In shamanic and other indigenous societies, humans and animals are bonded parts of nature and their relationship often includes sets of behavioral rules that may include respect, offering thanks, not wasting parts of animals used, and aspiring for a natural balance with the animal realm.

Aristotle mentions a hierarchy of beings from mineral to vegetable to animal to human. The Stoics stressed inclusiveness/belonging among rational beings but did not extend that inclusiveness to animals. Some famous Greeks such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus, and others were vegetarians that felt animals were worthy not to be harmed. Interestingly, Pythagoras and Empedocles considered that animals just might be former humans reincarnated and to kill them would be folly. Porphyry was another that venerated the status of animals. Aristotle, however, considered rationality the specific domain of humans and therefore animals to be inferior and to exist for the use of humans. Aquinas took up this Aristotelian view when he harmonized the teachings of Aristotle with the Church in the 13th century.

Descartes (1596-1650) favored a mechanical view of nature where animals were devoid of consciousness and at the disposal of humans. This view has apparently persisted as just months ago scientists announced that animals have consciousness! Although some people disagreed with him at the time there are still some now who follow in his footsteps claiming that animals do not feel pain and have no consciousness. Such denial to justify exploitation is rather lame in my opinion. Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza held similar views. One detractor was the self-taught philosopher and poet Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). She considered the specialized types of sensual knowing of animals. Locke and Hume generally followed Descartes’ view, excluding animals from the moral community. Kant also excluded animals but noted that we do have a duties involving animals, but not duties directly to them. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of modern utilitarianism. He noticed that much of morality current to his time emphasized the interests of those in power and tended to disregard those not in power. He sought an egalitarian sense of justice and morality based on the egalitarian abilities to suffer among humans (and animals). Since we all feel pain similarly we should all be treated similarly and have similar opportunity to avoid it if possible. He suggested that rights will eventually be extended more to the animal kingdom which was radical for the time. The famed utilitarian John Stuart Mill partially re-erected the barrier between human and animals in regards to duties. The utilitarians as well as Schopenhauer emphasized the commonality of suffering as the basis for the treatment of animals. Schopenhauer was influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thought. I have learned through Buddhist teaching (and common sense reflection) that all beings have a strong tendency to seek to avoid suffering and that is a basis for our commonality. Darwin tied things more to instinct and his theories of genetics. He noted that the difference between humans and non-humans is basically in degree. Though not stated in the book, this idea also occurs in Indian thought in the idea of the three gunas, or modes of material nature, where the hierarchy from mineral to vegetable to animal to human and beyond involves more and more sentience and refined consciousness that is progressively unveiled. Darwin noted examples where animals make tools and display other human-like thought qualities. He considered morality to arise from social instincts. Though Darwin had respect for animals, he could not be called a liberationist. His theories on evolution did, however, provide a new framework for understanding our kinship with animals. The bottom line is that until recently most philosophers have failed to include animals in the moral community even as lesser parts of it.

Regarding the rights of animals the author presents the traditional view that animals cannot have rights and revisionist views that they do. Henry Salt wrote a book in 1892 called – Animal Rights – which concluded that it would be logically inconsistent to ascribe rights (not to suffer) to humans but not to animals. Salt influenced Peter Singer though Singer is a utilitarian and does not think in terms of rights. Tom Regan, in – The Case For Animal Rights – (1982) suggested that all creatures have inherent value, or a life that matters. This may derive from Kant’s notion of humans deserving of respect due to their inherent worth. In any case, having inherent value, suggests that they should be ascribed certain rights. Regan suggests that animals have preferences, or what he calls preference autonomy. Having a life that matters makes them what he calls subjects-of-a-life – who have beliefs and desires, perception, memory, and a sense of the future including their own, feelings of pleasure and pain, and abilities to act in their own welfare and pursue desires and goals. He prescribes these characteristics at a minimum to mammals and possibly more animals. Regan considers the many situations humans are faced with that require choices between one harm and another towards animals and provides principles to determine to most considerate choices in respecting the rights of other creatures. These types of arguments about the best ways to minimize suffering are more prominent in modern discussions about animal liberation. The author provides detailed responses to Regan’s “rights view” from utilitarian, contractarian, and even feminist perspectives. Indeed he provides each of these four ‘versions’ in various manifestations for most arguments in the book. Some feminist philosophers have suggested that our treatment of animals be more emotionally and spiritually rooted as an “ethic of care” rather than a philosophical argument. I can relate to that – seeing the basis for our treatment of animals a bit more intuitively than strictly rational.

Arguments for and against hunting and eating animals follow along the same lines with differences of opinion on whether animals can suffer (duh), whether our killing them has any moral implications for us, and the degree to which we should adopt a reverence for life. Vegans, vegetarians, and those who reduce their meat intake in practice offer a greater reverence for life than those who don’t – generally speaking. Even those who consume meat mindfully and with some remorse and thanks do better than those who casually disregard the life of the animals they consume without thought. The notion that there are people – traditional and modern – so-called rational intelligent people too – who actually think that animals do not feel pain and do not suffer – strikes me and others as patently absurd. Yet such justification views still float about here and there. The argument that I have heard on several occasion typically from Christians is that animals do not have souls.

Some have pointed out that animals often endure more suffering and a more painful death in nature than by the hand of humans. Of course, this is no justification for shortening their lives. Animal welfare laws have worked to reduce the needless suffering brought about by the inhumane practices associated with factory farming prevalent in today’s populated world where demand for meat is high. Some people merely avoid factory farmed animal products which is also commendable in my opinion.

Both Singer and Regan think we have an obligation to be vegetarian but for different reasons. My own opinion is that it should be a choice but I would highly recommend it. The author seems to lean in favor of animal liberation and good treatment for animals but he does present the various arguments without bias.

Sport hunting has been described by some as a spiritual activity. I have even heard it described so. Jose Ortega y Gasset described it this way in his – Meditations on Hunting. He and others feel that it is necessary to kill in order to fully exercise the skills and cunning of hunting that leads to the spiritual experience and that simply stalking animals with a camera is not the same. Others including myself are skeptical. Sure it would be more intense to stalk to kill but seeing this as a necessary human need seems rather ridiculous. The situation with fishing has been described as less troublesome since some consider fish lower on the degree of sentience but this too is quite debatable. Subsistence hunting is probably a different matter since it is not recreational and has a very strong traditional component based much on satisfying hunger and maintaining life. Even so, it is debatable whether (or to what degree) it is necessary these days where such cultures have adopted modern ways. Some have made arguments that “supermarket vegetarians” have caused the death of animals due to farm machinery, loss of habitat, and pesticides. Though this may occur, it also occurs with those that eat meat as well as vegetables. I think there is a difference between directly causing a death by ordering the body product and indirectly through the likely side effects of agriculture.  Livestock raising uses many more resources and land resulting in more habitat loss than agriculture. The few who have justified big game hunting (elk) on these grounds have apparently not considered that few humans could do this before the prey was reduced in numbers significantly. Hunters have also argued that they act as environmentalists providing predation to keep the numbers of prey down. I don’t buy this one as I suspect that increased mating may compensate for that (esp. with deer who are hunted during their mating season) but I am not sure if this is actually the case.

Using and often harming animals in the course of scientific research is another topic of concern. Every year tens of millions of animals are used in such ways and some think that how they are used should be better regulated and harming for questionable benefits should be entirely eliminated. There is considerable debate over what benefits may come about through research where animals are harmed but it is clear to many that there is more harming than benefit. Harmful cosmetics testing and excessive determination of legal dosages for substances are two cases in point. Vivisection is a common practice in research. Anti-vivisection movements began in the late 1800’s. Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently originated the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, believed that vivisection should be abolished as it was often done for trivial reasons and he noticed that it often made experimenters callous and uncaring in their actions. This has been noted and documented with media as well among animal rights activists who have recorded such callousness undercover. Darwin himself was ambivalent to vivisection – seeing it as sometimes useful but often trivial.

Researchers concerned about animal welfare have come up with the three R’s: 1) replacement of animals with alternative methods; 2) reduction in the numbers of animals used – substituting statistical methods; 3) refinement of experiments in order to cause less animal suffering. This is a good trend but unfortunately many researchers are resistant to such mindful concern with animal welfare as they are still influenced by Descartes’ view of animals as machines. I think that overly radical animal rights activists have made the situation worse by overcompensating with property destruction, aggression, and borderline violence. Michael Allen Fox wrote – The Case For Animal Experimentation – with the typical philosophical arguments of animals not being part of the moral community. He noted that their worth has to do with their use to us. Afterwards though (1987) Fox repudiated his statements and changed his views noting that his views were arrogant, complacent, and arbitrary. He said he was influenced by social conditioning and the abstract principles of philosophical argument and that he ignored the influence that feelings and emotion should have in the determination of morality. He now stated that we have an obligation to avoid harm even if the experimentation provides benefits. He now rejects even a costs-benefits approach. Utilitarians like Peter Singer are not quite ready to eliminate a cost-benefits approach as some experimentation may be useful for the greater good of the most sentient beings. There is indeed much skepticism and debate about the actual benefits of animal experimentation. There is also the question whether it is better to do harm than to fail to prevent harm. There are no easy answers. There is the comparison of “definite harms” vs. “possible benefits.”

Another topic in research is genetic engineering and manipulation of animals. While this may have benefits it may also cause undue suffering. A case I can think of is the breeding of domesticated livestock to maximize meat production. This has been done with many animals. Turkeys and pigs come to mind. These animals have been bred and selected for maximum meat production which has also compromised their health and shortened their lifespans. Domesticated turkeys can grow so large that they are not able to walk and often die many years short of wild ones. Some such as Jeremy Rifkin have noted that genetic engineering threatens to devalue living individuals. The issue of transgenic animals – animals whose genetics have been altered by the addition of genetics from other species – also raises some concern. Heart valves from pigs and even a baboon’s heart have been transplanted into humans. Transgenic mice have been used to study diseases. The use of transgenic animals raises the issue of whether we are enslaving them as well. There is variation even among liberationists about the dangers of genetic manipulation. Some manipulation may be beneficial for the animal as well as humans. There is no blanket right or wrong, some argue. Each situation must be weighed individually to determine its potential merits and dangers.

Next we have a comparison and contrast between animal liberationists and environmental ethics. Many arguments and variations are presented. Environmentalists often speak in terms of a systems approach with the overall health of the ecosystem being paramount. This often suggests that keeping up predation of species is good for the ecosystem. The balance of the ecosystem may require the culling of species say some environmentalists. Others suggest a hands-off approach. Some suggest that we should help wild animals and others suggest a hands-off approach to that. I think we have an obligation to help them if we are able – such as taking an animal that has been injured by a car to a wildlife rehabilitation place. Many animals have been rehabilitated in such a way and we have done this multiple times.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic has influenced environmental philosophy. This is the notion that we should not regard the environment as a matrix of resources to be exploited for our benefit but that we should consider all parts of the environment as members of the biotic community. This may be a nice ideal but the overwhelming most of us still use those resources that are exploited so this cannot be implemented without a certain level of hypocrisy. Even so, Leopold’s notion that the effects of certain actions should be evaluated in terms of their effect on the whole system is sensible and in fact has become the norm in assessing environmental impact. Others give more weight to the individual and suggest a balance between the effects on the individual and the biotic community. J. Baird Callicott elaborated upon Leopold’s view in seeking to reconcile the tension between favoring the individual vs. favoring the whole in terms of social evolution – the group solidarity benefit mentioned by Darwin. Callicott favors traditional and indigenous views of the relationships of humans and the environment. Indeed these are stressed in these cultures. The “way of right relationship” with one’s family members: earth, sky, sun, moon, animals, plants, stones, etc. is an important part of Native American philosophy – as an example. In this way Callicott sought to reconcile the differences in emphasis between animal liberationists and environmentalists while still favoring the environmental approach. Others have accused him and Leopold of “environmental fascism.” Biologist E.O. Wilson notes a long-standing tension between individual selection and group selection among eusocial species such as humans. Anne Warren advocates a compromised approach where the rights of sentient beings trump the importance of non-sentient aspects of the environment while still recognizing their value. Yet she has been criticized for overly emphasizing the rights of humans over animals. Regan on the other extreme favors animal rights over the environmental ethic. Paul Taylor’s view in – Respect For Nature – suggests that all members of an ecosystem have equal value and so deserve our moral consideration. Taylor suggests that conflicts between individuals and the whole need to be prioritized. One priority is the principle of self-defense. Others involve certain conditions overriding others based on circumstances and necessity.

One important question is whether we should intervene in nature or leave it alone. My own answer to this would be that it depends on the circumstances. We are part of nature so intervening in it is part of our nature and so part of overall nature as well. I do not think there are clear blanket answers to every issue – but that each situation requires us to weigh the value of each solution. In this sense philosophy or a set of principles can only be a general guide and not a way to literalize each situation into a “by the book” approach. There are many grey areas that we must tread and sometimes we will fail to do what’s best. Even so, we should strive to do the best we can for the welfare of all of our fellow beings and be ever mindful to not cause needless harm.

In the conclusion, the author notes that there has been a remarkable change among philosophers in recent times to recognize a greater moral status of animals even if there is disagreement about degree. This is perhaps a reason to be optimistic although the same may not be true among the general population as it is among philosophers. I can only hope that we are becoming a kinder and more compassionate people but there is certainly a very long way to go in this regard.

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