Animal Rights

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 13 2001 2:55 AM

Animal Rights

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Richard A. Posneris a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author of, among other books, Animal Liberation. This week they discuss what, if any, ethical obligations humans have to animals.  

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Dear Judge Posner,

We agree that humans are animals and that we are not infinitely more valuable than other animals. More importantly, we agree not only on the wrongness of gratuitous cruelty to animals but also that we should incur some costs to reduce the suffering of animals raised for food or other human purposes. I'd hope that this means that we might agree on some practical reforms, for example not allowing veal or pig producers to confine their animals so tightly that they cannot even turn around or walk a few steps. Maybe we would also agree that the United States should follow Europe in phasing out hen cages that prevent the birds stretching their wings or laying in a sheltered nesting area. Since there are alternative forms of production that cost only a few cents per pound or per dozen eggs more, these are modest costs for us, with very large benefits for animals.

Though I'm hopeful, I do not know whether you would support such reforms, because the big question that still divides us is how far we should go to reduce animal suffering. Is there any basis for saying that we can justifiably inflict more suffering on an animal than we would ourselves experience from not inflicting that suffering? In other words, are we justified in giving preference to the suffering of humans, just because it is humans, and not other animals, who are suffering?

You say that you start from the "brute fact that we, like other animals, prefer our own." But who is "our own"? You suggest that it consists of our own family, our "pack," and "the larger sodalities constructed on the model of the smaller ones, of which the largest for most of us is our nation." You point out that Americans have diminished concern for foreigners and less still for nonhuman animals. True, but that is probably something for which President Bush is being taken to task right now, on his European tour, and rightly so. It is not ethically defensible to put the economic interests of Americans ahead of the much greater suffering that continued global warming is likely to bring to millions of people in countries without the resources to defend themselves against climate change.

Of course, sometimes partiality is justified: Children are better cared for by their parents than by strangers, and so we want to encourage family ties. But on the whole, I am more suspicious of common moral intuitions than you seem to be. It is not so long ago that laws persecuting homosexuals were justified by references to the sound moral instincts of ordinary people, and even the Nazis claimed to rest their laws on "the healthy sensibility of the people." Isn't it likely that such reactions rest on instincts that have their roots in our evolutionary history? If so, while we would ignore them at our peril, we do not have to grant them any probative weight. In other words, the fact that people commonly have a given moral reaction does not go much distance toward showing that this reaction is the one they ought to have. Hence I would turn on its head what you say in regard to the clash between intuitive moral reactions and philosophy: Insofar as we are thinking, ethically reflective beings, it is the instinctive reactions, not the philosophy, that have to go. If you do not accept this, then are you also prepared to defend the preference Americans show for those of their own racial or ethnic group? Is it even possible, consistently with the view of ethics that you appear to take, for us to argue on ethical grounds against racism, if we live in a society in which the racist intuitions are deeply entrenched?

I owe you a response to your comments about the wrongness of killing certain categories of human beings, for example those with Alzheimer's disease. People with such conditions have once been capable of expressing their wishes about how they should be treated, if they are ever in such a situation. Where they have done so, we should follow their wishes. If it is more serious to kill a human being with Alzheimer's than to kill a dog with greater mental capacities, this is because of the interests of human beings who do not now have Alzheimer's, but are concerned about how they will be treated if in future they develop such a condition.

In your concluding paragraph you say that what we need to do in order to persuade people to treat animals better is to get them to feel animals' pains as their own. I agree entirely that this is a helpful approach, but it does not make the philosophy irrelevant. When I first began to think about the ethics of our treatment of animals I was living in England in the early 1970s. Empathetic concern for animals was then widespread, but it was commonly dismissed by politicians and the defenders of the status quo as "mere sentimentality." The ethical arguments that I and others developed helped to persuade many people that the treatment of animals was not just something for "animal lovers," but was a serious ethical issue. That change in attitude has put Britain—indeed, the entire European Union—far ahead of the United States in its animal protection law. We do need more empathy, but we also need to take the empathetic feelings we have more seriously. A little philosophy can demonstrate why we should do so.

Peter Singer

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