“As The Doctors Study, The Patient Dies”

Day 26 Blog Post

The views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have some pretty demanding intentions when taken to heart, so to examine how better to treat animals caught up in our modern day world we look to a more stratified outline on the possible ways we can legally reform such treatment of animals. Donald VanDeVeer (one of the authors of our textbook) and J. Baird Callicott offer two critical modifications of animal rights ethics that stand to be seen.

This gives us some new ethical “-isms” to look at; one being ethical humanism, which equates higher mental/psychological functioning with moral standing. This is, essentially, glorified speciesism. Then there’s humane moralism, which gives moral standing to humans regardless of previous criteria but also determines capacity for pain and pleasure to be the ultimate factors for morality. This is where hints of Bentham’s utilitarianism peek through. And then there’s Leopold’s Land Ethic, which stresses the importance of the health of the biotic community as a whole. With the land ethic, the study of ecology made it possible to see land as a third order. But this also means that it holds the interests of the collective over the interests of the individual in what we can see becomes a paradox. Since biodiversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, a pure land ethic would advocate the removal (or death) of humans before that of an endangered species, so as to promote the welfare (biodiversity) of the whole ecosystem. Also to keep in mind is that, ecologically, the greater the population size, the less important the individual. This is a common argument on behalf of animal testing to use rabbits, hamsters, and mice because they are so renewable. But, then again, so are we.

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Callicott’s modification of the land ethic gives degrees of ecosystem importance as moral relevance. He advocates for very strong reform to the land ethic, and his main principle is to consider the animals’ role in the ecological community rather than value the life of each organism as the same. Callicott would have us make a hierarchy of importance in ecology. Keystone species are detrimental to ecosystems – without bees we probably couldn’t exist, yet there is no law preventing harm to bees. Callicott also says that Leopold’s land ethic is majorly based on human admiration of the “beauty” of nature – a human interpretation – biased toward our interests and poetic license. But he says skip the Sierra Club small talk because this won’t hold up, and rather we should call what we mean by its real name – intrinsic value – so that the argument has more argumentative worth. Ultimately, Callicott says we can still eat animals, but we need to reform the way we treat our ecosystems, like in implementing only small, organic farming rather than destructive monocrops. In his “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic” he says that “the implication of [Leopold’s maxim] includes the clear prospect that the individual may be sacrificed for the greater biotic good…” Regan calls this “environmental fascism” in that it leaves no room for individual rights in a world governed by one’s relationship to another. After getting called out, Callicott reformed his position.

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VanDeVeer’s main modification of Singer’s Animal Liberation is that degrees of sentience should determine moral standing. He believes that the ability to reason contributes to higher sentience, almost in a way that John Mills describes. He holds weak hierarchical positions for certain kinds of interspecific interests and offers a break down of different types of relationships humans have with other species. Radical speciesism is the nonsense that Descartes ranted about; claiming that animals are mechanic automata without thoughts or capacity for pain. VanDeVeer says there are no legitimate premises strong enough to entail radical speciesism as plausible, obviously. Then there’s extreme speciesism, which allows anything so long as it promotes some peripheral human need. This is also indefensible as the threshold for cruelty is not determined. The “interest sensitive” speciesism occurs when interests of similar importance are at stake, for example the human keeping of birds as caged pets. The humans benefit from having the bird as a pet and the bird benefits from being fed, though is still caged and under the control of the human. But, two factor egalitarianism, he says, is the trickiest relationship because it’s weighing the calculated interests of both parties. VanDeVeer “alleviates” conflict by offering higher psychological capacity as the criterion for whose interests are more important to maintain – essentially throwing the interests of “lesser” mentally capable species under the bus. But, he says, the difficulty is in weeding out the trivial wants from the basic needs that are obtained from unfavorable treatment toward the other species. This can be killing an elephant for its ivory tusks, pitting the human interest to have classy piano keys over the elephant’s tusks, and life. But the use of animals as food also falls under this relationship. It’s in this cross-benefit analysis of weighed interests that we find no solid line to draw a right or wrong. VanDeVeer also suggests that we consider people’s ability to retain memory and capacity for psychological pain to go into the negotiation of whose interests are put before others’.

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Personally, I find this part of his argument difficult to follow.  Rather than dissect our theories and make fight over nitty gritty contingencies, we need to look to what we know is true and valid. We know that other animals (dolphins, elephants, cats, etc.) have feelings, memories, and other traits we associate with what gives humans their humanity; but it’s also to say that with all of our cognitive powers and rational abilities, we as members of one species are inherently unable to truly sympathize with the worldview of other species, let alone another person. But just because we can’t really walk in another’s shoes/paws/hooves/fins doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat them with respect and allow them to live a happy life.

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