Animal Rights and Beyond - PROPHETS AND PARIAHS - Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen

Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


Animal Rights and Beyond

DO NONHUMAN ANIMALS HAVE RIGHTS? Should we humans feel morally bound to exercise consideration for the lives and well-being of individual members of other animal species? If so, how much consideration, and by what logic? Is it permissible to torture and kill? Is it permissible to kill cleanly, without prolonged pain? To abuse or exploit without killing? For a moment, don’t think about whales or wolves or the California condor; don’t think about the cat or the golden retriever with whom you share your house. Think about chickens. Think about laboratory monkeys and then think about laboratory rats and then think also about laboratory frogs. Think about scallops. Think about mosquitoes.

It’s a tangled question that, in my view, isn’t well suited to straight answers. Some people would disagree, judging the matter simply enough settled, one way or the other. Of course they have rights. Of course they don’t. I say beware any such absolute certitude. Some folks would even—this late in the evolution of human sensibility—call it a frivolous question, a time-filling diversion for emotional hemophiliacs and cranks. Women’s rights, gay rights, now for Christ’s sake they want ANIMAL rights. Notwithstanding the ridicule, the strong biases on each side, it is a serious philosophical issue, important and tricky, with almost endless implications for the way we humans live and should live on this planet.

Philosophers of earlier ages, if they touched the subject at all, were likely to be dismissive. Thomas Aquinas declared emphatically that animals “are intended for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatever.” Descartes held that animals are merely machines. As late as 1901, a moral logician named Joseph Rickaby, a Jesuit, declared: “Brute beasts, not having understanding and therefore not being persons, cannot have any rights. The conclusion is clear.” But maybe no, not quite so clear. Recently, just during the past decade, professional academic philosophers have at last begun to address the matter more open-mindedly.

Two thinkers in particular have been influential: an Australian named Peter Singer, an American named Tom Regan. In 1975, Singer published a book titled Animal Liberation, which stirred the debate among his colleagues and is still treated as a landmark. Eight years later Tom Regan published The Case for Animal Rights, a more thorough and ponderous opus that took position as a sort of companion piece to the Singer book. In between there came a number of other discussions of animal rights, including a collection of essays edited jointly by Singer and Regan. Despite the onetime collaboration, Peter Singer and Tom Regan represent two distinct schools of thought. They reach similar (not identical) conclusions about the obligations of humans to other animals, but the moral logic is very different, and possibly also the implications. Both men have produced some formidable work and both, to my simple mind, show some glaring limitations of vision.

Having spent the past week amid these books, Singer’s and Regan’s and the rest, I’m now more puzzled than ever. I keep thinking about monkeys and frogs and mosquitoes and—sorry, but I’m quite serious—carrots.

Peter Singer’s view is grounded upon the work of Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century British philosopher widely known as the founder of utilitarianism. “The greatest good for the greatest number” is the familiar, simplistic version of what, according to Bentham, should be achieved by an ethical ordering of society and personal behavior. A more precise summary is offered by Singer: “In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being.” If this much is granted, the crucial next point is deciding what things constitute “interests” and who or what qualifies as a “being.” Evidently Bentham did not have just humans in mind. Back in 1789, optimistically and perhaps presciently, he wrote: “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been with holden from them but by the hand of tyranny.” Most philosophers of his day were inclined, as most in our day are still inclined, to extend moral coverage only to humans, on the grounds that only humans are rational and communicative. Jeremy Bentham took exception: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” On this crucial point, Peter Singer follows Bentham.

The capacity to suffer, says Singer, is what separates a being with legitimate interests from an entity without interests. A stone has no interests that must be respected, because it cannot suffer. A mouse can suffer; therefore it has interests and those interests must be weighed in the moral balance. Fine, that much seems clear enough. Certain people of sophistic or Skinnerian bent would argue that there is no proof a mouse can in fact suffer and that to believe so is merely an anthropomorphic assumption; but since each of us has no proof that anyone else actually suffers besides ourselves, we are willing, most of us, to grant the assumption. More problematic is that very large gray area between stones and mice.

Peter Singer states: “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for disregarding that suffering, or for refusing to count it equally with the like suffering of any other being. But the converse of this is also true. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to take into account.” Where is the boundary? Where falls the line between creatures who suffer and those that are incapable? Singer’s cold philosophic eye travels across the pageant of living species—chickens suffer, mice suffer, fish suffer, um, lobsters most likely suffer, look alive, you creatures!—and his damning gaze lands on the oyster.

The oyster, by Singer’s best guess, doesn’t suffer. Its nervous system lacks the requisite complexity. Therefore, while lobsters and crawfish and shrimp possess inviolable moral status, the oyster has none. It is a difficult judgment, Singer admits, by no means an infallible one, but “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any, and better than most.”

Moral philosophy, no one denies, is an imperfect science.

Tom Regan takes exception with Singer on two important points. First, he disavows the utilitarian framework, with its logic that abuse or killing of animals by humans is wrong because it yields a net overall decrease in welfare among all beings who qualify for moral status. No, argues Regan, that logic is false and pernicious. The abuse or killing is wrong in its essence, however the balance comes out on overall welfare, because it violates the rights of those individual animals. Individual rights, in other words, take precedence over maximizing the common good. Second, in Regan’s opinion, the capacity to suffer is not what marks the elect. Mere suffering is not sufficient. Instead he posits the concept of inherent value, a complex and magical quality possessed by some living creatures but not others.

A large portion of Regan’s book is devoted to arguing toward this concept. He is more uncompromisingly protective of certain creatures—those with rights—than Singer, but he is also more selective; the hull of his ark is sturdier, but the gangplank is narrower. According to Regan, individual beings possess inherent value (and therefore inviolable rights) if they “are able to perceive and remember; if they have beliefs, desires, and preferences; if they are able to act intentionally in pursuit of their desires or goals; if they are sentient and have an emotional life; if they have a sense of the future, including a sense of their own future; if they have a psychological identity over time; and if they have an individual experiential welfare that is logically independent of their utility for, and the interests of, others.” So Tom Regan is not handing rights around profligately to every cute little beast that crawls over his foot. In fact, we all probably know a few humans who, at least on a bad night, might have trouble meeting those standards. But how would Regan himself apply them? Where does he see the line? Who qualifies for inherent value, and what doesn’t?

Like Singer, Regan has thought this point through. Based on his grasp of biology and ethology, he is willing to grant rights to “mentally normal mammals of a year or more.”

Also like Singer, he admits that the judgment is not infallible: “Because we are uncertain where the boundaries of consciousness lie, it is not unreasonable to advocate a policy that bespeaks moral caution.” So chickens and frogs should be given the benefit of the doubt, as should all other animals that bear a certain degree of anatomical and physiological resemblance to us mentally normal mammals.

But Regan doesn’t specify just what degree of resemblance.

The books by Singer and Regan leave me with two very separate reactions. The first combines admiration and gratitude. These men are applying the methods of systematic philosophy to an important and much-neglected question. Furthermore, they don’t content themselves with just understanding and describing a pattern of gross injustice; they also argue, emphatically, that the injustice should stop. They are fighting a good fight. Peter Singer’s book in particular has focused attention on the outrageous practices that are routine in American factory farms, in “psychological” experimentation, in research on the toxicity of cosmetics. Do you know how chickens are dealt with on large poultry operations? How veal is produced? How the udders of dairy cows are kept flowing? Do you know the sorts of ingenious but pointless torment that thousands of monkeys and millions of rats endure each year to fill the time and the dissertations of uninspired graduate students? If you don’t, by all means read Singer’s Animal Liberation.

My second reaction is negative. Peter Singer and Tom Regan, it seems to me, share a myopic complacence not too dissimilar to the brand they so forcefully condemn. Theirs is a righteous and vigorous complacence, not a passive and unreflective one. But still.

Singer inveighs against a sin he labels speciesism—that is, discrimination against certain creatures based solely on the species to which they belong. Regan uses a slightly less confused and clumsy phrase, human chauvinism, to indicate roughly the same thing. Both of them arrive, supposedly by sheer logic, at the position that vegetarianism is morally mandatory. To kill and eat a “higher” animal, they assert, represents an absolute violation of one being’s rights; to kill and eat a plant violates nothing at all. Both Singer and Regan claim to disparage the notion—pervasive in Western philosophy since Protagoras—that “Man is the measure of all things.” Both argue elaborately against anthropocentrism, while creating new moral frameworks that are also decidedly anthropocentric. Make no mistake: Man is still the measure, for Singer and Regan. The test for inherent value has changed only slightly. Instead of asking Is the creature a human? they ask How similar to human is similar enough?

Peter Singer explains that shrimp deserve brotherly treatment but oysters, so different from us, are morally inconsiderable. In Tom Regan’s vocabulary, the redwood tree is an “inanimate natural object,” sharing that category with clouds and rocks. But some simple minds would say: Life is life.