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- Ancient and Medieval Perspectives
- Moral Philosophies of the Enlightenment
- Kant on Duty to Animals
- Bentham and the Moral Utility of Pain
- Contemporary Animal Rights Debates
Whether animals have rights and, if so, how we should understand those rights is an important contemporary issue that has arisen in the context of older philosophical debates over the moral status of nonhuman animals. These controversies ultimately concern the relative places of human and nonhuman animals in nature. Because issues concerning the moral status of nonhuman animals are informed by longstanding philosophical theories, some historical observations are helpful.
Ancient and Medieval Perspectives
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have exploited nonhuman animals for food, clothing, transportation (both civil and military), and power to run agricultural, mining, milling, and other machines. In the industrial West, animals continued to perform traditional labor-related functions into the early part of the twentieth century, and animals still play many important roles in the developing world. Since the dawn of modern science, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, animals have also been used in basic biomedical research to expand the base of biological knowledge, in applied research (e.g., drug safety tests), and in a broad range of commercial contexts including product safety testing.
But are we morally justified in using nonhuman animals to serve our own ends, especially when many of the ways in which we exploit animals inflict harm, pain, or death? According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s (384–322 b.c.e.) teleological philosophy, everything in nature has a purpose or function. Plants, for example, exist for the sake of animals, and nonhuman animals exist for the sake of humans (viewed as rational animals).
St. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) incorporated Aristotle’s philosophy of nature into medieval theology, intertwining Aristotelian teleology with Christian thought. The claim that animals exist for human use was argued on the grounds of divine providence. Aquinas opposed undue cruelty to animals, though not because animals have moral standing; instead, he contended, cruelty to animals could instill bad habits that would lead to immoral behavior toward one’s fellow humans. Aquinas was not the only medieval thinker who examined the moral status of nonhuman animals—others, such as St. Francis of Assisi, were perhaps more charitable—but his views were arguably the most influential in shaping modern debates.
Moral Philosophies of the Enlightenment
The rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries involved extensive experimentation on nonhuman animals subjects. Anatomical knowledge could be gained from the dissection of cadavers, but live subjects were needed to gain physiological knowledge of vital functions; since vivisection of humans was deemed morally unacceptable, the discovery of physiological information depended on nonhuman animal subjects.
All scientific experiments require interpretation, and the anatomical and physiological experiments on animals gradually came to be interpreted in terms of mechanical metaphors (the lungs work like bellows, etc.). A thoroughly mechanical view of animals gradually emerged, and by the middle of the seventeenth century, thanks in no small measure to the work of the philosopher-scientist Rene Descartes (1596–1650), animals were viewed in influential scientific quarters as nothing but machines. Humans, though they had mechanical, physical bodies, had sophisticated mental lives, including the abilities to think and experience pleasure and pain. Animals, by contrast, were said to lack minds or souls; believed to have no mental lives, they were viewed as mere machines without feelings of pleasure or pain. The screams of nonhuman subjects on the vivisectionist’s table were equated with the sounds emitted by machines under strain.
Much of the traditional debate about the moral status of nonhuman animals hinges on the question of whether they are cognitively vacant, as the Cartesian view suggests, or have morally relevant mental lives. By the end of the eighteenth century, many theorists granted that nonhuman animals could feel pleasure and pain and were not cognitively vacant. Controversy remained, however, over the moral relevance of animal pain. By the end of the eighteenth century, two towering figures of moral philosophy in the Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham—came to give diametrically opposite conclusions.
Kant on Duty to Animals
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) saw nonhuman animals as inherently inferior to humans. Most thinkers prior to Kant had seen some connection between morality and rationality, but arguably none had welded these two notions together as tightly as Kant. Thus, for Kant, morality is primarily concerned with rational beings and their relationships to, and interactions with, other rational beings. In modern language, a moral community is a collection of rational beings to which nonrational creatures do not belong.
Just as the laws of physics are the same for all observers, so moral law is the same for all rational beings and results in behavior that is universally good (not just for this particular rational being in this particular context). In any particular action or situation, according to Kant, one should act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature (a principle to be followed by all beings in the moral community). Telling the truth thus commends itself to rational beings, whereas lying to or stealing from one’s neighbor does not pass the test because the advantage one hopes to gain is negated if the neighbor follows the same maxim (lying or stealing back).
Related to this is Kant’s view that rational beings are persons, not mere things. Things are used as means to other ends, whereas persons are ends in themselves. Telling the truth treats a rational person with respect as a person, as an end in himself; lying to a rational being, however, treats that person as a means to another end. The moral law thus requires that we act out of respect for other persons in the moral community. But where does this leave nonhuman animals?
Kant was consistent with his principles. Nonhuman animals, because they are nonrational, are not persons and therefore not members of the moral community of rational beings. This does not excuse cruelty or arbitrary treatment of animals. Kant echoes Aquinas with his assertion that
Our duties toward animals are merely indirect duties toward humanity. Animal nature has analogies to human nature, and by doing our duties to animals in respect of manifestations of human nature, we indirectly do our duty towards humanity. Thus, if a dog has served his master long and faithfully, his service, on the analogy of human service, deserves reward, and when the dog is grown too old to serve, his master ought to keep him until he dies. Such action helps support us in our duties towards human beings.
But as Kant himself observes, “Vivisectionists, who use living animals for their experiments, certainly act cruelly, although their aim is praiseworthy, and they can justify their cruelty, since animals must be regarded as man’s instruments; but any such cruelty for sport cannot be justified.” If animal experimentation is in the service of the health and well-being of rational beings, as it may be in biomedical research, it can be justified, for nonhuman animals are not persons. There is no reason to believe that Kant believed nonhuman animals were unable to feel pain. In this sense, he is no heir to the Cartesian tradition in physiological research; quite the reverse. The fact that animals behave as we do when we are in pain is the basis for our limited obligation to them. But pain inflicted in the service of science, for example, is not morally significant. Here the end can literally justify the means.
Bentham and the Moral Utility of Pain
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) developed a view of morality very different from that of Kant. For Bentham, the consequences of action were all important. But what sort of consequences are morally relevant? In examining the human condition, he focuses moral attention on happiness, introducing the principle of utility: “By the principle of utility is meant the principle which approves or disapproves every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” In this context, pleasure promotes happiness, and pain diminishes it. Bentham thus emerges as a champion of the moral relevance of pleasure and pain, as they arise in the effects of actions. For Bentham, the value of action in either public or private life lies in the pleasures and pains produced. The resulting moral theory is known as utilitarianism.
These comments bring out two important points. First, moral consideration must be given to the pleasures and pains experienced by individuals. Second, we must assess pleasures and pains with respect to relevant communities of individuals. Membership in a relevant community depends on whether one is likely to be an interested party—that is, liable to suffer painful or pleasurable consequences from a given action. It does not matter whether one is rational or can use language; the ability to experience painful and pleasurable sensations is enough to be included.
So what of the deliberate infliction of extreme pain and suffering? Here, Bentham was ahead of his time:
The day may come when the rest of the animal world acquires those rights that never could have been withheld from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.
Bentham makes the following important conclusion:
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?
We thus see that, in the work of Bentham, it is irrelevant whether animals can behave morally toward each other or toward us. The real issue is how we should behave toward creatures that can feel pain and suffer by our actions.
If we must treat with care those humans who are not rational and do not behave morally simply because they are capable of suffering, then why not nonhuman animals, too? As Bentham argues, the racist cannot make a case for different treatment based simply on the color of one’s skin; therefore, the “speciesist” (one who discriminates on the basis of species membership) should not to be allowed to base different treatment simply on an individual’s membership in a nonhuman species.
There is an enormous difference, then, between moral theories like Kant’s that single out species-specific traits, such as rationality or language, in determining membership in the moral community, and those like Bentham’s that appeal more inclusively to traits common to a great many animal species. Kant and Bentham differ over who counts and who does not—that is, over how the moral community is to be structured. It is against this background of moral theory that the modern animal rights debates take place.
Contemporary Animal Rights Debates
At least three identifiable positions—each involving an overlap of social, cultural, political, and philosophical concerns—regarding the moral status of nonhuman animals exist in contemporary thought: animal welfare, animal liberation, and animal rights. Virtually everyone engaged in the contemporary moral debate concedes that animals feel pain.
The welfarist position concedes that nonhuman animals (certainly mammals and birds, and arguably other vertebrates) have non-negligible moral worth, and their ability to suffer pain means they should not be treated capriciously. Nevertheless, welfarists do not acknowledge that they have rights. Cognitively superior humans should promote animal welfare whenever possible, they argue, but this does not preclude using animals in research. Promoting the welfare of nonhuman animals might involve imposing procedures—by an institution, a nongovernmental authority created by research institutions, or the state itself—to govern animal experimentation, the alleviation of pain and distress during and after experiments, and broader rules concerning what is known as animal care.
Carl Cohen, one of the most prominent contemporary philosophers arguing that animals do not have rights, represents a version of the welfarist position in “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research:”
It does not follow … that we are morally free to do anything we please to animals. Certainly not. In our dealings with animals, as in our dealings with other human beings, we have obligations that do not arise from claims against us based on rights…. In our dealings with animals, few will deny that we are at least obliged to act humanely—that is to treat them with the decency and concern that we owe, as sensitive human beings, to other sentient creatures.
The above list includes animals that the American Anti-Vivisection Society, an animal rights group, claims have been experimented on in the United States in recent years.
There are echoes here of both Aquinas and Kant. Nevertheless, Cohen is an ardent defender of animal experimentation. The benefits for human health and well-being are so great that painful experiments, provided they are conducted humanely and with due concern for the animal subjects’ welfare, are morally permissible. In welfarist arguments, nonhuman animals are typically excluded from the moral community of equals—a community consisting of those who may claim rights and have duties and obligations to each other.
The liberationist school of thought is rooted in the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. Perhaps its most notable proponent is Peter Singer, who developed the themes of the liberationist position in Animal Liberation (1990). For Singer, membership in the moral community of equals is determined by an organism’s capacity to feel pain and suffer:
If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with like suffering—insofar as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. So the limit of sentience … is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?
Thus, for Singer’s argument to work, an organism in the community of moral equals must, at the minimum, have feeling, consciousness, even if it does not have the ability to use language or cannot be counted as a rational agent.
Animal rightists contend that the utilitarian arguments have a basic flaw: if harming an individual would promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number, then it will be morally permissible to harm that individual on utilitarian grounds, even if the individual is a member of one’s own species. If the individual in question is a member of a cognitively inferior species, the enormous benefits to humans may be seen to outweigh its suffering. The animal rightist position, first worked out by American animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, attempts to evade this kind of reasoning.
Earlier we saw that Kant regarded humans as ends in themselves and never as means to further ends. Thus, harming an individual to benefit others is always wrong, no matter how great that benefit is. Kant excluded nonrational, nonhuman animals from the moral community of beings that count. Animal rightists, as Regan notes, challenge this exclusion:
The rights view takes Kant’s position a step further than Kant himself. The rights view maintains that those animals raised to be eaten and used in laboratories, for example, should be treated as ends in themselves, never merely as means. Indeed, like humans, these animals have a basic moral right to be treated with respect, something we fail to do whenever we use our superior physical strength and general know-how to inflict harms on them in pursuit of benefits for humans.
But what earns nonhuman animals membership in the moral community of beings that count when considering the infliction of pain on individuals to achieve a higher good? For Regan, feeling-consciousness and self-consciousness, not rationality and the use of language, are the determining factors: “These animals not only see and hear, not only feel pain and pleasure, they are also able to remember the past, anticipate the future, and act intentionally in order to secure what they want in the present. They have a biography, not merely a biology.”
Contemporary controversies stemming from these disparate moral theories focus on the usefulness of animals in the context of biomedical research. The vast majority of animals used in research are rodents (about 90 percent of the 16 million to 20 million animals used annually in research in the United States). Evolutionary biology reveals that rodents and humans have both similarities and differences (the evolutionary lines of modern rodents and modern humans diverged more than 65 million years ago). Rats and mice are not simply humans writ small; they have unique sets of evolutionary adaptations. The animal rights debate thus involves the scientific relevance of animal research to human health and well-being, but it also concerns the similarities between human and nonhuman (such as rodents, cats, dogs, and various nonhuman primate species) in cognitive capacities such as feeling-consciousness and self-consciousness. The debate is not simply over moral theory; it is also, in part, over what science has (and has not) revealed about the relative positions of nonhumans and humans in nature.
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