The ethics of food-10: Minimizing suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution says that we are all connected in the tree of life. So humans are not only related to apes and other animals, we are also related to plants and even to the ‘lowly’ fungi. But no one is arguing that therefore we should stop eating vegetables too.

Clearly to survive we have to draw at least some lines as to what species we include within our moral community and what species we exclude. Such lines are necessarily arbitrary but need not be without some justification.

If we are going to use suffering as the measure of whether we are justified in killing and eating animals, then that implies that sentience is a key marker. But what level of sentience? Peter Singer and other animal rights philosophers argue that some level of sophistication of the nervous system is necessary to include the species within our moral compass. They draw the line at the nervous system of scallops, so that anything with an equal or more primitive nervous system than a scallop can be eaten. [Read more…]

The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-8: Interests of species versus interests of individuals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I wrote before that the theory of evolution, by giving all animals equal standing in the evolutionary tree of life, provides a strong argument against the exploitation of one sentient species by another. There seems to be no defensible criteria by which we can prefer the interests of an individual human over that of an individual nonhuman animal, because they each have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering.

This seems to imply that killing animals in order to obtain meat for eating is wrong under all circumstances. But in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan suggests that this need not necessarily follow.

The argument is a tricky one that involves disentangling the interests of a species from the interests of individual members of the species. Recall that it was argued that we could not and should not give preferential treatment to our species as a whole over other species as a whole because whatever marker we might use for doing so (intelligence, language, consciousness, etc.), we would find at least some individual members of our species who had less of that quality than some members of other species.

But if we keep the argument at the level of species, a case can be made for eating meat.

One argument says that if the human species as a whole possesses some significant quality (say intelligence or consciousness) that other species either do not possess or possess at a lower level, that entitles all members of the human species privileged treatment, even those who may possess less of that particular quality than some members of other species. In other words, this argument rejects entirely the premise of the argument from marginal cases. But this line of argument has significant consequences if applied within the human species. If, for example, we discovered some important quality that (say) females possessed on average more than males, would we then be willing to privilege all women over all men?

Another argument says that being domesticated for the purpose of being eaten or otherwise exploited by humans has benefited such species of animals. The domesticated species we eat (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) would most likely become extinct if we ceased to eat them. After all, the reason that their numbers are much greater than their wild cousins is because they have benefited from the protection that humans have given them. At some point in evolutionary history, these animals showed signs of being amenable to living alongside humans, adapted to doing so, and as a result they have experienced an explosive growth in numbers.

“[D]omestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and – yes – their flesh.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 320) This language is somewhat misleading in that it implies that both sides were equal and conscious partners to this deal and that the animals voluntarily submitted. In fact, it is humans who unilaterally set the terms.

But as a result of this ‘bargain’, it is undoubtedly true that many of the animals we don’t eat like wolves, lions, and tigers are in danger of extinction, while dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs have flourished, at least in numbers. If we all became vegans and released domesticated animals into the wild, the numbers of these domesticated species would dramatically decrease and may even perish entirely within just a few generations.

The problem here is how to decide between what is good (at least numerically) for (say) the species of chicken (which favors domestication and the consequent meat eating) and what is good for an individual chicken (which clearly has an interest in not being eaten). The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the individual chicken has an interest in being born at all, if the price for that opportunity is to be killed and eaten later.

Answering such questions involve difficult, even impossible, metaphysical calculations. Is it better to have not lived at all or to have lived a good life even if that means being eventually killed to be eaten by others? Does the life of a single chicken that lives a long life result in more or less net happiness and suffering than two (or more) chickens whose lives are cut short? And so on.

Next: How do we weigh the benefits of a good life against a quick and painless but early death?

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on stupidity in politics.

Changing the political calendar

(The series on the ethics of food will continue next week.)

If you are at all like me, you are probably already sick of the presidential election and simply want to get it over with. We are currently in that part of the political season where nothing of significance is happening and yet there is a lot of time to fill, so we have a relentless focus on trivialities and an endless obsession with polls, trying to make sense of their ups and downs in relation to news events.

Take for example the absurd fuss over tire pressure:

Then we have the nonsense about celebrities, triggered by this ad from the McCain camp suggesting that Obama was a frivolous airhead:

The only noteworthy thing to emerge from this latter non-issue is the Paris Hilton counter-ad poking fun at McCain. It cannot be a good sign for McCain that she is a better speaker than him.

While I enjoy silliness as much as the next person, these things indicate to me that the campaign has already gone on too long and the candidates have far too much time on their hands. It is time to change the American political calendar.

Here is my plan, for what it is worth, based on the belief that voters can be divided into two groups: those who decide early and those who decide at the last minute.

The early deciders are either those who follow politics closely and already have all the information they need to make a decision, or those who make their decision based on party affiliation, specific single-issues, or candidate characteristics that are known early. There is very little that could happen between now and the election to make these early deciders change their minds, though their level of enthusiasm for their candidate could wax and wane. For example, almost all the people I talk to have already decided, like me, who they are going to vote for and it is hard to see them switch.

The voters who decide at the last minute are either those who don’t care much about politics but have a vague sense of civic duty that they must vote and will go with their ‘gut’ when it comes time to pull the lever, or are simply chronic procrastinators who will wait until the last minute to find out what the candidates are all about. For such people, it does not matter whether they have another hour, week, month, or year to make their decision. They will do so at the last minute, whenever that minute is.

My theory about why the polls fluctuate during this time is not because people are changing their minds as a result of any news event (speculating about this is purely a game that keeps the pundits employed) but that this second group of voters gives more or less random answers to the question of who they are likely to vote for, coupled with sampling biases.

So why must we have this Sargasso Sea of dead time between when the nominees have been decided and the election held? What purpose is served by this other than requiring an enormous amount of money to raised and spent by the candidates on advertising, traveling around the country and the world, and for the media to follow them?

Here’s a much better calendar. The date of the election is fixed in the US constitution to be early November and cannot be changed. [Update: Jim Eastman has pointed out in the comments that this is incorrect, that the date is set by statute.] Similarly the idea of having primaries is a good one in that it gives the public at least some semblance of participation in the choice in the nominee, even if just barely, so it should be retained.

So why not schedule the primaries in the months of July, August, September, have the party conventions at the end of September or beginning of October, and then run an intensive presidential campaign for just three to four weeks (like other countries do) before the elections at the beginning of November?

All that this would require is for the two parties to agree to this primary and convention schedule. Since both would benefit equally by not wasting so much time, there seems to be no reason why it could not happen.

Of course, individual candidates could still start as early as they want to to lay the groundwork to run for office but at least we would not have to pay any attention until June or so and thus not be subjected to an interminably drawn out election schedule. Also, candidates and voters would be most involved in the summer months, allowing more students to be involved in the process without taking time off from school, and we would be spared the dreary spectacle of people trudging around in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire in the dead of winter.

POST SCRIPT: On not watching the Olympics

It seems like just yesterday that I was not watching the 2004 Olympics (wherever it was held) and now it is already time to ignore the current one, whose opening ceremonies are today.

I long ago got sick of the coverage, with its relentless commercials, the almost exclusive coverage of only the events that US athletes were taking part in, the jingoism, grandstanding, and flag-waving on display by athletes of all countries, the cheating, and the sappy biographical stories of athletes I had never heard of before and would never hear of again.

Promising that marquee events are ‘Just ahead’ when the announcers had no plans on showing it for at least an hour (to be filled with commercials), had to be one of the most annoying parts of the coverage.

Here are some suggestions to improve the Olympics and its coverage.

  1. Only play the Olympic anthem at all medal ceremonies, not the national anthem of the gold medal winner’s country. If the Olympics don’t have an anthem, use the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is short and bouncy and sounds anthem-like with all those tubas.
  2. Any athlete who indulges in excessive boasting or ‘I’m number 1’ finger-pointing or taunting of other athletes or in ostentatious flag waving victory laps after winning an event gets hit with a rubber chicken.
  3. Eliminate all events where the results are determined by judges scoring on ‘artistic merit’ or aesthetics. This means that gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving must go.
  4. Get rid of all the horse events. It seems like the horses are doing all the work at an event meant to showcase human athletic achievement. If horse events are to be included, then why not NASCAR?
  5. Get rid of beach volleyball. How did this casual summer pastime come to be in the Olympics? What next – a ‘dog catching a Frisbee’ event?

Thank you. End of rant.

The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain’s parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain’s parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament’s environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause ‘adverse effects’ such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen’s eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)

POST SCRIPT: CSI-Stone Age

The ethics of food-6: Against speciesism

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Peter Singer opens his 1975 book Animal Liberation with this statement:

This book, Animal Liberation, is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which has resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white human over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 21)

Equating the present treatment of animals with the horrors of slavery is strong stuff. It is important to realize that by doing so he is not in any way minimizing the horror of slavery. In fact, one thing that shines through in Singer’s writings is his deep abhorrence of all kinds of exploitation. On the contrary, he is trying to make us view our treatment of animals with the same horror that we rightly view slavery. His rhetoric is being used to shock us into a realization of how barbaric is our present-day treatment of animals.

Is it possible that future generations will look back in horror at our current treatment of animals and wonder how we could have been so blind to the barbarity of our actions, the way that we now look back at slave owners?

[C]ould it be . . . we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then “a crime of stupendous proportions” (in Coetzee’s words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 309)

The problem in a nutshell is this: A bedrock assumption is that we as humans should extend our full consideration to other humans. We think it is wrong to exploit them for our own ends, and would condemn the killing and eating of other humans. Even if someone had ceased to be of any value at all to society, we would consider it wrong to devalue that person’s life.

So what gives us the right to devalue the lives of members of other species?

It is important to realize that Singer is not an absolutist. He does not condemn all killing and eating of animals. Even if we do not give the interests of animals the same full consideration we give to the interests of humans, Singer argues that at the very least, what should drive our decision making is the desire to eliminate, or at least reduce, pain and suffering. And one of the things that we should target is the present day industrial farming model that treats animals unbelievably cruelly. This is a clearly avoidable evil that even meat eaters could and should embrace.

Only the tiniest fraction of the tens of billions of farm animals slaughtered for food each year – the figure for the United States alone is nine billion – were treated during their lives in ways that respected their interests. Questions about the wrongness of killing in itself are not relevant to the moral issue of eating meat or eggs from factory-farmed animals, as most people in developed countries do. . . . In the light of these facts, the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 70)

Whatever one’s views on eating meat, I think most people would agree that animals should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. We rightly react with horror to stories in which animals have been treated badly and look upon with disgust the perpetrators of such acts.

This may be why it is that many of the darker aspects of our industrial food production system involving animals are kept away from public view. Michael Pollan found that he could not get to see the places where beef cattle are slaughtered or where layer chickens are kept. In fact, he argues that one of the best ways to improve the conditions of animals in the food chain might be to legislate complete transparency in all aspects of the production line, to the extent of requiring the walls of the facilities be made of glass, open to the public, and easily visible to anyone who wants to see exactly how their meat and eggs get to their supermarkets. This is not an absurd idea. Pollan reports that one company (Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota) “is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass.” (p. 333)

Pollan also describes his experience on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm where people are welcome to visit and see how the animals live and how they die. Pollan himself took part in the process where he personally killed chickens, watched by members of the local community who had come to buy chicken. While there is no doubt that such an experience might turn someone off meat eating forever, Pollan reports that having lived on the farm and having seen how well the animals were treated in life and how humanely they were killed, the experience did not turn him off meat as he had expected it to.

Somehow, for reasons he could not quite explain, the fact that the animals had led a good life and had what seemed like a quick and painless death made the situation acceptable to him.

POST SCRIPT: Now, this is the ‘on’ switch . . .

John McCain apparently does not know how to use a computer, even to surf the net or get email. This has caused some snickering but Jackie and Dunlap have some advice for him on how to deal with this issue.

The anthrax case-2: The scandalous behavior of ABC News

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later.)

The way the anthrax scare was used to panic the public in the wake of 9/11 and create a rush to war was one of the many low points in recent media history.

The way they did that was by presenting totally false information that the anthrax contained traces of materials that could only come from Iraq, charges that were widely disseminated by, among others, the notorious neoconservative Laurie Mylroie, one of the major cheerleaders for invading Iraq.

Who is this Mylroie? Peter Bergen wrote a profile of her in the Washington Monthly in December 2003:

In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the ’93 Trade Center attack, but also every antiAmerican terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.

Glenn Greenwald describes the disgraceful role played by the media, especially ABC News, in using this false information to shift the focus away from a domestic criminal probe of the anthrax attacks to one that excited public terror and drove the mad rush to war with Iraq.

During the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, continuously trumpeted the claim as their top news story that government tests conducted on the anthrax – tests conducted at Ft. Detrick — revealed that the anthrax sent to Daschele contained the chemical additive known as bentonite. ABC News, including Peter Jennings, repeatedly claimed that the presence of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, since — as ABC variously claimed — bentonite “is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program” and “only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons.”

ABC News’ claim — which they said came at first from “three well-placed but separate sources,” followed by “four well-placed and separate sources” — was completely false from the beginning. There never was any bentonite detected in the anthrax (a fact ABC News acknowledged for the first time in 2007 only as a result of my badgering them about this issue). It’s critical to note that it isn’t the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

We are now told that right from the beginning, the FBI was convinced that the anthrax came from the Fort Detrick facility. So who was lying then?

Greenwald continues:

Surely the question of who generated those false Iraq-anthrax reports is one of the most significant and explosive stories of the last decade. The motive to fabricate reports of bentonite and a link to Saddam is glaring. Those fabrications played some significant role — I’d argue a very major role — in propagandizing the American public to perceive of Saddam as a threat, and further, propagandized the public to believe that our country was sufficiently threatened by foreign elements that a whole series of radical policies that the neoconservatives both within and outside of the Bush administration wanted to pursue — including an attack an Iraq and a whole array of assaults on our basic constitutional framework — were justified and even necessary in order to survive.

ABC News already knows the answers to these questions. They know who concocted the false bentonite story and who passed it on to them with the specific intent of having them broadcast those false claims to the world, in order to link Saddam to the anthrax attacks and — as importantly — to conceal the real culprit(s) (apparently within the U.S. government) who were behind the attacks. And yet, unbelievably, they are keeping the story to themselves, refusing to disclose who did all of this. They’re allegedly a news organization, in possession of one of the most significant news stories of the last decade, and they are concealing it from the public, even years later.

They’re not protecting “sources.” The people who fed them the bentonite story aren’t “sources.” They’re fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood. But by protecting the wrongdoers, ABC News has made itself complicit in this fraud perpetrated on the public, rather than a news organization uncovering such frauds. That is why this is one of the most extreme journalistic scandals that exists, and it deserves a lot more debate and attention than it has received thus far.

The willingness of the media to accept at face value the claims of the government is the real problem. On NPR yesterday, Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, said things like the FBI is due to release this week some the evidence it has “amassed” against Ivins, giving the impression that the FBI actually has huge amounts of such evidence. She said that the evidence seems “compelling” and referred to the “genetic fingerprints” of the anthrax (based on apparently ‘new science ‘developed by the FBI) that somehow pointed to Ivins’ lab, and a psychologist’s description of him as a “threat”. It is important to realize that she had no idea if any of these statement were true. She just passed them on as fact because the government had told her, and thus they become part of the official story.

It is a very dangerous thing when the news media and the government collude to disseminate false information. ABC News has a lot of explaining to do. It should start by revealing who were these four “well placed” people who were spreading the dangerously false information that helped drive the country to war with Iraq.

Justin Raimondo has been tracking the anthrax story from the very beginning and his most recent analysis is well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald has a follow-up posting that asks some very important questions.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect country and western song

Listen to the last verse, which puts it over the top.

The anthrax case-1: The collusion of the FBI and the media

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later this week.)

The death of Bruce E. Ivins, an anthrax researcher at Fort Detrick, Md has suddenly thrust the ignored anthrax story back into the news.

The fact that Ivins apparently killed himself just when he was about to be indicted by the FBI is being taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. I am not convinced that the case has been made. After all, the FBI previously relentlessly hounded another scientist Steven J. Hatfill with leaks to the media for the same case, so that he lost his job and could not get others. Hatfill fought back and sued the government and they were forced to settle with him in June for $5.8 million. It seems strange that the attention shifted to Ivins just after the collapse of their case against Hatfill.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-5: Pain and suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Philosopher and advocate of animal rights Peter Singer is sometimes accused of going out of his way to make deliberately outrageous statements. From what I have read of him, this charge seems unjust. He strikes me as a very thoughtful philosopher who is not being merely a provocateur but is skillfully using the argument from marginal cases to show us the consequences of carrying the often glib justifications we use to justify our treatment of animals to their logical conclusion. The end result often makes us uncomfortable, which may explain the somewhat heated responses he generates.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, “To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he’s not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he’s not white.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don’t (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the ‘inferior’ humans over the ‘superior’ animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the ‘argument from marginal cases’ and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What’s the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don’t we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?