(This article is a slightly revised extract from a longer article entitled ‘Animals’.)
Modern debates about how humans should treat animals can be traced to the ancient world.
Aristotle thought that human beings were superior to other animals because only human beings are capable of reasoning. Jewish, Christian and Islamic teaching is that that God gave human beings dominion over other animals.
Rene Descartes (1596–1650) agreed with this basic approach holding that animals had no soul or capacity to reason. He believed that the human mind was something separate from the human body and linked human beings to God, a link that other animals did not have.
But the belief that human beings are superior to animals does not necessarily result in support for unnecessary cruelty to animals. Superiority, in the sense of being more able or intelligent, can imply that one should look after the welfare of beings that are less able or intelligent.
For this reason some philosophers came to emphasize that cruelty to animals was undesirable. They thought that even if animals could not reason they could obviously feel and suffer. The British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham said of animals “the question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk? but, can they suffer?’.
Two ideas arose from the view that animals can suffer.
The first idea was that, even if it is true that human beings are more intelligent than animals, unnecessary cruelty by human beings towards animals reflects poorly on human beings. Worse still, unnecessary human cruelty towards animals might be more likely to lead to human beings being unnecessarily cruel to each other. The Romans’ public displays of cruelty to animals and humans alike supported this view. On the other hand, Nazi Germany had strong animal welfare laws which did not prevent immense cruelty towards human beings.
The second idea was that if ability to reason, rather than ability to suffer, was the only measure of superiority, then cruelty to a human being who cannot reason, babies, or people with severe intellectual disabilities, for example, might be justifiable.
Nevertheless the idea that animals should not be subject to unnecessary cruelty by humans (animal welfare) still fell short of the more recent idea that animals have “rights”, or even equal rights, with human beings. Those supporting animal welfare policies to necessarily conclude that human beings should not eat meat, use animals to make clothing, or use animals for scientific experiments to improve medical treatments for people.
At least in the West, it was not until the 1970’s, that the ideas of animal liberation or animal rights became more widespread. But even among supporters of animal liberation there are often fundamental differences in philosophical approach.
Differences between animal rights arguments
Some animal liberation supporters argue that because the rights of humans are based on their possession of ability to think, and because some of the more intelligent animals can also think, these more intelligent animals must have some rights. This view may end up adopting a different approach towards the killing or suffering of more intelligent animals such as whales, dolphins or chimpanzees than it does towards less intelligent animals such as fish or insects. Animals like horses and cows might fall somewhere in between. One difficulty with this argument is that it requires different lines to be drawn based upon relative intelligence of different animals. This is far from a straightforward exercise. There are likely to be different opinions on how to measure intelligence and also in relation to the appropriate allocation of “rights” based upon that assessment of intelligence.
Other animal liberation supporters argue that because both animals and human beings can suffer there is no good reason to regard animal suffering as any more or less significant than human suffering. This may lead to the view that, irrespective of intelligence, no animal should be allowed to suffer more than any other animal. But is the extent that an animal suffers affected by its level of intelligence? For example, does a human mother suffer more if her child is eaten by a shark than a fish suffers if its offspring is eaten by a shark? The answer appears to be “yes”. And even if other animals suffer, we do not therefore expect the cat to cease cruelly toying with the mouse before killing it. We accept that this cruelty is in the cat’s nature. So what do we make of the fact that it is only the human mind that appears capable of contemplating abstract arguments about animal suffering and animal rights? Are we drawn back again to the intelligence argument?
Arguments against animals having rights akin to human rights- why I am a speciesist.
There are significant arguments against the idea that animals should be regarded as having rights in the same way as we commonly regard human beings as having them. These arguments include the following:
- The basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly they also possess consciousness and a “self”. But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours and this is the important difference with the human brain. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”, because it is built on a larger base of past memories. This is why a human mother suffers more watching her baby being eaten by a shark than a fish does.
- To be meaningful a right must always involve a responsibility to respect the rights of others. Animals can and do demonstrate empathy to other animals, particularly to their young and other members of their species. But unlike human beings, animals do not, and cannot, recognize or respect “rights” in others and therefore it makes no sense to think animals have “rights”, let alone equal rights with human beings. In the natural world animals do not recognize the rights of other animals. Animals eat each other and even engage in cruelty towards each other both within their own species or towards other species.
- Because animals have no language or no sophisticated language, it may be impossible, or at least more difficult, to measure the extent of their suffering.
- Eating meat may have been of importance in human evolution. Our closest living relative the chimpanzee eats meat (although not very often) and increased consumption of meat by human beings is a possible reason for growth in the size of the human brain because meat is generally a more intense source of protein than fruit or vegetables. This is not to assert that human beings should not be vegetarian or eat as much meat is typically consumed in developed societies. Apart from health issues associated with over consumption of meat, mass meat production raises environmental concerns. Neither is it the case that just because something might be considered “natural” is should be regarded as immutable or right. “If all natural things were good, then companies making orthodontic braces would have gone bankrupt long ago. It might be “natural” to have sex with 13-year-olds who are already sexually mature… That a form of behaviour has its basis in biology does nothing to recommend it.”
- While it is not justified to inflict pain on an animal without justification our intuition, our natural moral sense, tells us that we should give preference to our own species over other species. Most people given the choice between killing an unknown average animal and an unknown average human being would be expected to choose to kill the animal. If, faced with this theoretical choice you choose to kill the animal ahead of the human in my view you are a “speciesist” because you prefer your own species over another. However animal rights philosopher Peter Singer defines speciesism differently arguing that a speciesist is a person who thinks it is always wrong to kill a human ahead of an animal even if, for example, the particular human being has profound intellectual incapacity.
None of these arguments negate the view that the vegetarianism or veganism may be better a more ethical choice than eating meat, or that it is it is legitimate to have concern for the welfare of animals and to avoidance of unnecessary cruelty to them. Neither do they negate the view that the world would be a better place for humans and animals alike if cruelty to animals is avoided. Indeed there is something disturbingly self-centred, or arrogant about viewing animals as nothing more than mere instruments to be used for any purpose human beings invent. This says something about us, whether or not we regard animals as having rights.