Mar 31 2006

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase “valuing the culture of life” seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by ‘our side.’ To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a “culture of life.”

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being ‘effectively dead’, that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism (“We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.”) was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument “I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?” is acceptable?

Singer’s point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a “culture of life,” human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still ‘alive’, and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.


Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on “Watch Chris Bliss.”

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