Paws and Think

Day 25 Blog Post

Following the previous entry’s topic of the moral standing of animals, a breath of fresh air comes with the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. I’m in three classes that have all talked about Peter Singer for more than a week’s worth of their curriculum, so I’ve been living and breathing animal morality and consideration (unfortunately around the holidays, when extensive meat-eating for my family is as basic as wearing pants). Peter Singer is known for his work on making people consider our treatment of animals, and Tom Regan is responsible for the developments of the animal rights movement. The cruelties toward animals at the greedy hand of man is just another example of environmental injustice.

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation implores us to come to terms with our treatment of fellow sentient beings as morally as wrong as racism or sexism. He claims under utilitarian grounds that our justification for such horrid treatment of animals is based in nothing but speciesism, the idea that we can treat a different type of species different merely based on the fact that they are a different species than our own, or just because they’re not homo sapiens. “If we have learned anything from the liberation movements, we should have learned how different it is to be aware of the ways in which we discriminate until they are forcefully pointed out to us,” and so animal liberation is a demand that we cease to regard the exploitation of other species as naturally inevitable, and that, instead, we see it as a continuing moral outrage. Peter Singer is a utilitarian, and urges us to realize that animals do in fact feel pleasure and pain, just like us. It doesn’t take much veterinary science to know that most animals, especially mammals, have very similar physiologies and anatomical structures. And it’s even more obvious to anyone who’s seen even one dog at least once in their life that animals do in fact feel pain and happiness as well. Based on this indisputable fact, the school of utilitarianism would tell us that we must eliminate that which causes suffering and choose that which maximizes pleasure. Again, it’s not rocket science to come to the conclusion that chickens do not like being held upside-down, having their heads plunged in electrified baths, and so this behavior should be eliminated because it is morally wrong. Even more unacceptable is the fact that experimenting on animals for academic and commercial ends is a huge industry. Estimates suggest that around 80 million animals suffer at the hand of testing, mostly for non-vital, trivial experiments. I think we know not to get shampoo in our eyes, the endless blinding of animals needn’t occur for our shockingly superficial tastes. Also, experiments are often supported by public funds and can even be found in most scientific journals. All of this is evidence of our speciesist disregard for the immense and totally preventable pain and slowly induced deaths of millions of animals. However, being that Singer is a utilitarian, he is not saying that it is necessarily wrong to eat animals – just that to cause them pain (mainly under industrial conditions) is immoral. Similar to this idea is the Humane Society’s three Rs: reduce the amount of meat you consume, refine where you purchase your meat from, and replace meat with substitutes wherever possible.  Even Bentham wished to extend the pleasure-pain principle to animals, since many are sentient and therefore fall into the category of beings whose pleasure should be maximized.

Since one must live under a rock to not realize that animals suffer intensely under the institutions we’ve set up, the real evil is in our permissibility to allow these things to go on. Singer says a proposal to revamp the farming conditions was sent through the British government stating “Any animal should at least have room to turn around freely” and was rejected on the grounds that it was too idealistic. This is insane. It is even more frustrating when people understand that these animals are sentient, capable of feeling pain, and acknowledge that factory farm conditions are the way they are, but try to brush it off because “they’re going to die anyway” or “it’s not wrong if it’s done humanely” (humanity doesn’t exist in the factory farming system). There’s no comfort in any way shape or form, it’s too costly to give the animals enough room to turn around. And as for the argument that “we need to eat meat,” this is just false. We’ve known that our bodies don’t need meat, and that we can get our protein from grown sources like beans that don’t come with all the unhealthy fats and chemicals in industry raised meat. As a matter of fact, factory farming reduces the amount of farm-grown protein plants because they give such large reserves to the animals who metabolically use up 90% of the protein. So, just like most of pillars of the American economy, the food industry creates it’s own downward-spiraling system that traps us into doing exactly what’s easy and cheap, but harmful, to ourselves (and the animals).

I actually recently saw Peter Singer at a panel at school where he and other speakers discussed the morality of animal treatment, although it was most focused on the religious angle of the issue. But Singer made an important point that’s worth taking home: “I don’t live in a world that makes my existence dependent on the suffering and death of others.” There really is no solid, large-scale reason for the mistreatment of animals… other than the money we give to support it. The right answer to most problems in our society is be a wise, public citizen over being a mindless, private citizen.

In Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, the animal rights movement has three main goals: 1) total abolition of the use of animals in science, 2) total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture, and 3) total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping. It argues that the whole system is wrong, and that we can’t change unjust institutions by “tidying them up.” Like Singer, he argues that the fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as resources, that they exist to serve us. The Kantian cruelty-kindness view states under deontological grounds that we have a direct duty to be kind and not to be cruel to animals, and this is where we get organizations like PETA. Under the similar utilitarian premises as Singer states, the fact that animals are sentient beings capable of pleasure and pain puts them on the same grounds for treatment as us. You would come off as scum of the earth if you denied someone fair treatment based on the color of his or her skin, so why not the same for another fellow sentient being, who happens to be of a different species? The rights view says that to treat another in ways that disrespect the other’s inherent value is to act immorally, to violate the individual’s rights. This is what the movement is calling for, an extension of the moral community (which we’ve only recently granted to women and minorities legally) to our friends with tails and feathers.

You Are What You Eat

Days 23 & 24 Blog Post (Just in time for Thanksgiving!)

We are starting to become aware of the injustices inflicted on people through environmentally degrading forms of exploitation and how our economy perpetuates deep-seated roots of racism and the institutionalization of second-class citizens. But so far there has been another biotic group that has gotten less attention, and this group contains far more numbers than humans. The dependance of our and other economies on the severe injustice toward animals – fellow beings that feel pleasure and pain – is probably more atrocious than the economic injustices toward most people.

The traditional view that most cultures and societies of human existence is often called the “anthropocentric paradigm,” and we have used this to determine which things have moral standing. So, since human historical memories can trace, the appropriate criterion for moral standing has been mere membership to the group of homo sapiens. This is speciesism; and it’s the most historical and basic determining factor for moral standing, and thus not a sufficient condition of formulating an adequate ethical theory. I will try to make these points with as many helpful pictures of my dog, Noble, as I can.

Following this factor for moral standing is what and how we assign value to something. We have assumed that only the lives of human beings have intrinsic moral value. There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic moral value. When we say something has intrinsic value, its existence comes with being valuable. But when something has extrinsic moral value, it means that it only has value in its use toward something else. This is also known as instrumental value. Things with intrinsic value are ends in themselves, but things with extrinsic value are means to an end. For much of “civilized” human history, animals have had merely extrinsic value.

A number of criteria for moral standing have been proposed that should allow something to have moral standing. Throughout time, value has been given to: 1) personhood 2) potential personhood 3) rationality 4) linguistic capacity 5) sentience 6) being alive 7) being an integral part of an ecosystem 8) being an ecosystem. This is the historical anthropocentrically assigned rubric of value throughout time. It also stands to mention that at some point around the 17th and 18th centuries during the time of René Descartes and Isaac Newton there was a shift in the concept of the earth as being alive, of being a generous parent, to the concept of it being an object, or a wound-up clock to be tinkered with, by us. Unfortunately, Descartes believed that non-human animals lacked linguistic capacity and therefore “lacked a mental-psychological life,” a vestigial view of the moral standing of animals that lasts today.

(I know for a fact that my dog has intense dreams. He often flails his legs like he’s chasing something or makes chewing motions with his mouth, all while he’s sleeping. How can something dream and not have a mind?)

Today we have instated the existence of animal rights, which is based on the “the idea that some or all nonhuman animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives, and that their most basic interests – such as an interest in not suffering – should be afforded the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings.” This idea was heralded by Peter Singer, and it opposes making decisions on speciesist claims and advocates that animals should no longer be viewed as property or be used for clothing, food, research subjects, or entertainment, taking into consideration the welfare of the animals. Animal welfare, or the physical and psychological well-being of animals, is measured by indicators like behaviors, physiology, longevity, and reproduction. The term can also mean people’s consideration of the best interest of animals. Historically, different cultures have viewed the importance of animals differently. One famous example is the Egyptian reverence for their various local animals, and their love of cats – whom they believed embodied the spirit and intelligence of the god Bastet. The Greek historian Heroditus observed that if a domesticated cat died, the entire house would go into mourning “as if it were a human relative,” and that if someone killed a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was swift death. Cats were even mummified to ensure that they lived on in the after life.

Noble asserting himself as a part of the family

Many people and organizations today have argued on behalf of the animals in order to pivot our view of animals as things to be consumed, in the harsh ways we consume them, to a more humane position, and thereby bringing them into our moral community. One of these people is Joaquin Phoenix, who made the documentary ‘Earthlings” to show just how wickedly we treat animals whom we, by our actions, ascribe only consumptive value. The film opens with saying that there are three chronological levels to the truth: ridicule, violent opposition, and finally acceptance. There’s nothing I can say here that can possibly come close to substituting the message of seeing the film and the powerful images and footage it employs to make us understand the horrors of the institutions that exploit animals and the lowly, if not negligent, moral status we give them. What goes on behind the systems that give us animals for pets, animals to consume as food and clothing, animals for entertainment, and using animals for science research is truly comparable to a never-ending holocaust. It is becoming more mainstream knowledge the practices that give us our abundance of food – birds with food hoses shoved down their throat, cows pumped with hormones. One image I will never shake is seeing a dog (who looks a lot like my husky) getting its skin ripped from its body, alive, and then watching the dog panting, bloody, skinless, and in unimaginable pain. One more widely disputed topic is brought up in the film that was also discussed in another class of mine – vivisection. Some scientists argue in favor of testing on live animals for its benefit to people. Vivisection is subjecting living animals without anesthetic to torturous trials of experiments, such as injections, dissections, exposure to nuclear radiation, and even forcing blunt G-force trauma, usually to the heads of monkeys multiple times. I fail to see even the utilitarian benefit of inflicting terrible pain on countless bodies for the sake of a more comfortable consumer. And what kind of people deserve anything that comes from torturing fellow sentient beings? Joaquin Phoenix perfectly sums up our placement of animals in “our” world in one sentence: “The fate of animals is to be unwanted by man, or wanted too much;” and suggests that what we need is a stronger, more mystical view of animals, rather than the one our culture promotes now that instates complacency for commercial bliss. Our moral community needs to be extended to all the earthlings.

I recently watched another film for another class called “The Cove” by Louie Psihoyos. This truly heart-breaking documentary is an exposé about the atrocious abuse and exploitation of dolphins by the town of Taiji, Japan, for the lucrative business of dolphin use in aquariums, exhibitions, and food. The film was not only extremely informative and saddening, but also very intense due to the crew’s having to spy around the cove in Taiji at night and watch out for the constant surveillance that the Japanese government/fishing industry put in place. “The Cove” perfectly sums up our exploitation – our harvesting – of defenseless animals in our endless pursuit of commodification (“a dolphin in the right spot can make millions a year”). This industry is capitalization of nature at its worst. It has been noticed that dolphins are very human-like in their socialization and recognize each other in familial units, just like us. They also won’t leave a fellow dolphin being attacked or in trouble, which makes it easy for the fishermen to massacre most of the catch. They scare the dolphins by banging on the hull of their boats which disorients the dolphins due to their keen perception to sound (their main sense) and then assault entire groups with spears and harpoons once they’ve trapped the dolphins into the cove. It’s worth noting that dolphins are one of the many animals studied that we know engage in purely playful interaction, again, just like us. They’re also famous for being known to save human lives. In moral terms, is there no more innocent creature on the planet, and perhaps even more capable of morality and moral standing than us?

The fact that many humans take animal rights/welfare as a joke might say that we’re in the ridicule part of ultimately accepting the truth about the moral standing of animals. There’s probably still a ways to go before we release our grip on a constant supply of animals to fuel our society’s creature comforts. Logically, there really is no way around justifying it, and the strongest argument against giving moral standing to animals is that it is unappetizing. That’s just not good enough. Clearly I’m obsessed with my dog and personally think that some members of my own species deserve the same violent end they bring upon such gentle creatures for superficial and economic gain. But if we can’t treat simple – and not so simple – animals with the respect they deserve, how are we ever going to get that with people?

p.s. adopt from shelters!