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!