Thursday, April 27, 2006

Animal lovers

I have long been interested in animal liberation movement as it has been developed by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation. I am interested in the philosophy as a source of conservation ethics but it seems to me the problem is complicated - conserving native species generally involves killing introduced, feral species and these too should have rights in an animal liberationist ethic.

My take on this debate - as an omnivore who is also a conservationist - is that most people strongly dislike causing pain or distress to animals. Thus we recognise that animals have rights. The issue of the appropriate definition of these rights and whether or not they need to be curtailed is the difficult bit. My view is that animals do not possess the moral agency of humans so that the rights extended to animals should be more constrained than those for humans.

Singer disagrees and argues that any curtailment of rights is speciesism. So I am a speciesist. Jason Soon, over at Catallaxy, makes an interesting post on the the Spanish Socialist Party which will introduce a bill calling for
“the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.”
The justification is that humans share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, 97.7% with gorillas, and 96.4% with orangutans, although I think Peter Singer probably would not even require that. The earthworms would be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Singer's ideal world and vote down certain agricultural practices.

I like simians and I certainly respect their rights but I think this proposal is absolutely crazy. Its not a matter of not respecting non-human life. Its a practical issue - human beings are the group in this world who make decisions - not monkeys. Humans make the decisions that determine their rights. For this reason alone the values of humans require extra weight. These values may convey a sense of reverence and love for nature - I hope mine do - but they are human not animal values.


Jan said...

I wonder whether Singer is consistent - does he see farm animals as slave labour and milking a cow as sexual harassement?

hc said...

Jan, Over at Catallaxy a cheeky commentator asks whether 'equal rights' included the right to marry.

Jan said...

Marry and consummate the marriage? Well that is a slightly different kind of love...

conrad said...

Surely moral agency falls onto a continuum? Lots of animals do things for no apparent reason apart from the fact they have some sort of attachment and conception of others. Why would a dog try and save its master at the risk of its own life, for instance?

I also don't buy this "we're the toughest" argument. Via the same logic, it legitamizes all forms of discrimation, including all the worst forms we see. The Germans and Japanese thought they had extra weight, and indeed could and did enforce it, which didn't make them correct in their actions.

Even the extent of morality arguments I don't buy. Lets say a group of super advanced aliens came down that had a taste for human. Would the discrepancy legitamize eating and enslaving humans ?

hc said...

Conrad, This is not rationalising supremacy of the strong. Its saying the obvious that those in control make the decisions. Standard ethiical arguments for them being respectful of other forms of life etc apply but those in charge decide. It is almost a tautology but none the less meaningful. Its suggests that those who see 'intrinsic value' in nature are missing the point. The conservationist and other values are in the minds of human decision-makers.

Please be clear about it. I am a strong nature conservationist - its an important part of my life. I am also strongly opposed to all forms of cruelty to animals. But nature doesn't get to vote - I do.

conrad said...


I'm still not buying this argument as a justification for different levels of animal cruelty or conservation in general (nature getting a vote).

One way to look at it is that humans are the decision makers, and hence shape the environment around them. In this case, what I see of value is just that. Nature doesn't get a vote in this.

The flip-side is that a lot of conservation that is done is reactionary in nature. Something goes wrong, and I have to do something to fix it for my own benefit (say, global warming, rabbits, salinity, etc.).

As far as I'm concerned, they are two different issues (which often become circular). The important one is the second, because this is me doing something in defence of nature. I'm not voting in this case, I'm being coerced (I'm only voting in reaction), and I might lose. So perhaps it isn't a conscious vote by nature, but it is akin to a vote by nature.

Back to the initial arguement, perhaps animal cruelty is all in the former I vote you suffer category, but I find this hard to believe. If you eat civet-cat, you'll die tommorow, if you eat a lot of meat, your arteries will get clogged and you'll die early, and if everyone eats too much meat, they'll cause damage to the environment, which will, say, destroy your farm. Hence there is circularity at every level and time span (which I consider a vote by nature), with the damaging effects at a longer time span being one of the things that you don't even get a vote to stop, but have to endure in any case.

I guess a lot of what this boils down to is whether you consider a feedback effect a vote or not. If you do, then there is no clear-cut argument for you being the person in control of all the proceedings, but only a proptionate winner, and perhaps different winners/losers at different time spans.

If you accept that, then you are incorrect in your belief about being the decision maker, but you are simply part of the process. In this case issues like conseration are not simply in the minds of human decision makers, but take on a larger scope including all entities involved.

hc said...

Conrad, I am not sure we disagree. The language here is getting confusing. Do I consider the welfare of animals in my persomnal welfare function? Yes I do. And then I optimise that - accounting for the role of non-human life in determining the constraints that limit me. But it is my vision, my view. And that's all it can be because it is me as a human who is making decisions.

conrad said...

I think we agree too. I just wanted to point out that if you consider yourself a small inseparable part of a larger system, then the way you might express the ethical problems and indeed the way you think about those problems is quite different -- sorry, its hard to express!

I seem to seem to remember you had a post mentioning groups like the Jains, and presumably such a religion (philosophy) is one reason they come to a different conclusion to you.

Rob M said...

While I admire the clarity of thought in Singer's writing, isn't the logical conclusion of Singer's views on animals that we should actively intervene to prevent predators eating their prey?

And couldn't you argue that by introducing animal husbandry we have actually the amount of animal suffering (a farm cow spends most of their time wandering around eating with no threat of predators, and is killed quickly and reasonably humanely), and therefore being an omnivore is morally correct by his own utilitarian philosophy?

P.A. Coplay said...

I have some sympathy with the argument of Rob M - are there many species that might tell us what cows, pigs, sheep would be like if they had not been domesticated? - given the right predators they could quite easily have become extinct. Becoming domesticated can be seen as a Faustian deal - you can live until I eat you! But your species goes on!

I also liked the hypothetical raised on Marginal Revolution of a substance (if memory is correct) grown like meat but not from a living creature (not in existence but probably not impossible). If this existed, I would probably prefer to pay a bit extra and eat this (soy, IMHO doesn't quite do it)

hc said...

Rob and p.a.c., Years ago as a half joke I wrote a piece where animals derived utility proportional to a concave function of their lifespan - as their lifespan increased their utility increased but at a decreasing rate. And new animals could replace old aniimals with zero pain at the time of killing. Then an optimal havest policy for humans involved killing animals periodically and replacing them with new stock.

I think my model might have been naive but it captures your point. Harvesting can conceivably advance both human and animal welfare. Death can be welfare improving for a population.