One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The right to arm bears

“It’s just god’s way of punishing them for being dumb.” Part 1.

This post is a tirade against the very idea of animal rights – which I think is based on some sloppy sentimental thinking. In particular, It’s about the Ideas of the philosopher Peter Singer, who is regarded by some as the founding father of the Animal Liberation Movement. …Although perhaps he’d be less in favour if the guys actually listened to him or read his books. He regards suffering caused against animals as morally equivalent to suffering in human, so on that basis he doesn’t believe we are justified in eating them. Fair enough. However, as a Utilitarian (he calls himself a Consequentialist) he maintains that the benefit of many can justify the suffering of the few, so he’s not, in principle, against animal experimentation. But he would regard a newborn baby as ethically inferior to an adult primate and so would advocate experimenting on the baby rather than the monkey - with the obvious benefit that a human subject would provide a better medical model.

Here are some reasons why I think he’s wrong:

  • The whole notion of Utilitarianism is rendered bankrupt by the Law of Unintended Consequences. We can’t reliably tell whether our actions will lead to good or ill (what if we kill a baby Mandela to save a baby Hitler…etc. etc.). Thus we must only make such utilitarian decisions in extremis – such as shooting down the airliner just before it hits the building – and even then only if we can be sure it’s not going to plummet into the crowded city. (There’s a flipside to this in medical research: We can never be certain that by inserting the probe in the monkey’s skull we’ll cure Parkinson’s disease – but I think there’s an answer to that - more in a future post.). And then there’s the paradox of how we measure’ good’ across populations: Maximum? Mean? Mode?
  • Singer has spoken of ‘speciesism’ as being equivalent to racism, sexism or any moral distinction between humans. This is a key quote for Animal Rights advocates - it gives them a spurious high ground. His argument for the equivalence of humans and animals is based on the idea that we are indistinguishable from animals – we are simply a type of Great Ape. This is true. We share our DNA, in varying degrees, with bonobos, dogs, snakes, slugs, fruit flies, bananas, slime moulds. But from this reduction ad absurdum it’s pretty clear that a line has to be drawn. Singer draws it at the capacity for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness. So humans and gerbils have rights, bananas and boulders don’t. Oddly (to my way of thinking), he’s not an absolutist about this. He allows a continuum based on the extent to which organisms have unmet goals. So a newborn baby, who hasn’t yet developed goals, or an infirm elder who’s met all the goals they’re going is less ethically important than, say, a bonobo or (I’m not clear on this) a mouse. And, perhaps quite reasonably, there’s a continuum from grown-up humans down to jellyfish. Hmm. I wonder how you measure an organism’s capacity for pleasure/pain . I’m not convinced by people who tell us authoritatively that fish/lobsters/shrimp don’t feel pain; I just don’t think we know. And I’m damn sure we can’t quantify it. But even if we could…how many lobsters would be equivalent to a human? What’s the exchange rate between lobsters and mice? I’m thinking it’s an all or nothing thing.
  • Singer is selective about the rights that he grants to animals. He focuses on their suffering but does not think, for example, that armadillos should be given the vote. So let’s focus on life, freedom from suffering and self determination (which, I guess, would translate in practical terms as the right to roam free). To take the last one first – all animals compete for resources. If there’s not enough nuts in a wood, grey squirrels will survive at the expense of red. Do mice and rats have a right to nibble at our soybeans or birds to eat all our cherries from the tree? Maybe – but I think it’s quite in order to deny them that right and keep the food for our own species. Then…life and freedom from suffering. Well, animals don’t afford us those rights, do they? Presumably, though, given a continuum it’s in order for us to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a human. (But what about a baboon who’s about to fatally injure a baby?). However…they don’t even grant each these rights. But are we in order to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a zebra? Or a human who’s about to shoot a zebra? Or a leopard? Or a bonobo? It seems to me that human moral capacity must fit into the equation somewhere and that humans have a different ethical status to animals.
  • Ethics fundamentally deals with issues concerning how we deal with one another, and Singer would extend this to animals. I think that all but selfish ‘Objectivists’ of the Ayn Rand school (I object to her use of the word ‘objective’ - and thanks to healinmagichands for pointin out an error in my original post) would accept that we have a duty of care towards one another. So, for example, it is morally good to feed the hungry and tend the sick – not that we do enough of these. Should we be expected to extend this to animals? Need we scour the jungles in search of sloths in need of medical attention? Should we have lifeguards on beaches to throw back beached jellyfish?*

In short, it seems to be that Singer's ethical framework is somewhat irrational. Taken to the extreme, it would have thoroughly objectionable consequence for humans judged to be less sentient.

For the record - I don't eat animals.

Eventually in Part 2 I'll expand on (my version of) human-centred ethics.

* A man is walking by the beach. He comes across another man who is walking along the high tide line, picking up jellyfish, placing them in the sea and wishing them luck with a cheery wave. He approaches him. ”What are you doing?” he asks. ”Im rescuing jellyfish”, the man replies. ”But there are thousands of them. How can you possibly make a difference? The man places another jellyfish in the sea and bids it farewell. “Made a difference to that one, didn’t I?”


healingmagichands said...

For the record, I do eat animals. However, I believe that if I am going to practice animal husbandry, it is my obligation to provide them with proper conditions to grow. This is actually self-serving of me, because an animal who has been fed, watered and sheltered properly tastes a whole lot better than one that had to scrabble for existence.

I find the torture of animals repugnant. I do not hold this position from any high-minded place. But I also believe that properly conducted animal experiments are of benefit to mankind. I also believe in stem cell research.

Ayn Rand referred to herself and her followers as Objectivists, not Rationalist.

I believe you mean the Law of Unintended Consequences, not the Law of Intended Consequences.

Woodpigeon said...


I can't STAND animal rights activists. It's a warped value system that demeans many of the basic values of humanity.

It's all part of a commonly voiced opinion nowaday that humanity is, in some way, a malign influence on the planet, and something that should be purged in some way. As if some God told them that this was the only way to look at such things.

Therefore murder, and even better, genocide, in that frame of thinking, becomes a great act of good, and procreation is a great evil to be stopped at all costs.

Give me a break.

We do face huge threats as a result of our past successes as sentient technological beings: over-population, starvation, warfare, climate change and loss of biodiversity to mention just a few. But we also have opportunities, many of them brought about by technology: opportunities to regulate the speed of population growth, opportunities to get along with less, opportunities to give many people half-decent lives and to offer them some protection from harmful diseases.

Who'll sign my petition: "Stop experimenting on animals! Do it on an activist instead..."??

Edward the Bonobo said...'re quite right. It was Objectivists, not Rationalists - a slip of the mind. And thanks for spotting the other typo.

Yes, indeed - the torture of animals is repugnant. That is because we naturaly empathise with things with faces. To allow animals to be mistreated hardens us to one another. Pliny wrote a good deal on the topic and was disgusted by the way that some farm animals were treated in his day. But I think that's to do with humans, not animals. Cats don't feel the same way about mice. But I'll expand on that in Pt 2. Or maybe Pt 3.

It's not difficult to be sceptical about our future. It's an impersonal universe, and we might well have the capacity for self-destruction encoded in our genes. I hope not: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." But damn sure it's going to test our ingenuity.

azahar said...

I've never felt that the killing of animals to eat was 'cruel' per se, of course this depends on how they are killed and, in terms of factory farming, the tortured lives most animals lead before they are slaughtered.

Since most of us don't raise animals and kill them ourselves, we are participating in the torture of them for our dinner. This is an ethical problem that I am ashamed to admit I tend to ignore, though I do try and buy 'free-range' as much as possible.

Meanwhile, quite agree with woodpigeon that many animal rights activists seem to have a few screws loose. I mean, would any of them deny their dying child the latest cancer treatments that came about due to animal testing? If so, then they are truly fucked individuals. IMHO.

As with all extremists I find their exploits not only distasteful but also quite hypocritical. I'd like to know what most of them are wearing on their feet, for example. If it's nylon trainers, well, just have a look at where and how a lot of these are produced.

And even if THEY might find wearing burlap sacks on their feet an ethical answer to their own personal issues, they can hardly expect the rest of the world to follow suit.

You know, the rest of us who are actually living here on Planet Earth and having to make some sense of what goes on here most of the time, especially in the world of Big Business.

Also, most of what they do is counter-productive. Are they offering clear and better options? NO! They are just saying 'this isn't right!' and frankly don't seem to have a very firm grip on reality as most people know it.

I feel the same way about animal activists as I feel about anti-abortionists. Which is - get a fucking life already and stop pestering others who don't happen to share the same blinkered view of the world.

Okay, rant over.

JCNSmith said...

"The man places another jellyfish in the sea and bids it farewell. “Made a difference to that one, didn’t I?”

Nice story! Would I be forever categorized as hopelessly bonkers for admitting to making it a habit to "rescue" earthworms stranded on sidewalks and perishing from dehydration? Why not? It costs me nothing to do so (other than a few askance glances from wary passersby who no doubt hope I'm not carrying sharp objects). Earthworms are notoriously benign and beneficial to other living creatures, including me. And I have a great deal of fun casually mentioning in conversations with friends that "I saved four lives today!" (Or whatever the number.) They are living things. Call it the golden rule extended to the animal kingdom, or call it a tiny, marginal example of enlightened self-interest, or just call it crazy.