Speaking up for Animals
As someone trained in philosophy, I have acquired the habit of being reluctant to make bold assertions. The difficulty of the questions commonly addressed in philosophy ranges from very complicated to intractable, and it is very easy to overstep the bounds of the rationally justified in these matters, and it is even easier to make a fool of oneself. As a result, there are only very few important things that I take myself to know (with a capital K), and with regard to which I am prepared to claim that my own view is the only admissible one.
Among the very few important things that I take myself to know, and which might very well be the most important item overall, is that suffering is intrinsically and objectively bad. It does not matter where or when the suffering takes place, or for what end or purpose it is caused, or what its consequences are, or who it is that suffers, or who causes it. Suffering is bad, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, by anybody. Assuming the moral principle that if it is in one's power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable value, or, indeed, of any significant value at all, then one ought to do so, it follows that we ought to try to prevent, or at least minimize the amount of, suffering in the world to the extent that we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable value, or, at least, without sacrificing anything of significant value.
Possible Objections: 1) “How do you know that suffering is intrinsically bad? You owe us an argument for this claim.”
Reply: There are propositions whose truth is immediately obvious, and the assertion of which does not require any further argument or justification. These propositions wear their truth on their sleeves, so to speak. This category includes logical and analytic truths, but also some substantive ones. For instance, the proposition that it seems to me that I am seeing a purple computer screen right now contains some substantive information, but its truth is still immediately obvious and it is impossible for me to be wrong about it. The proposition that suffering is intrinsically bad is of this kind as well. It is immediately obvious and its assertion does not require a further argument. But for those people who do not agree that suffering is intrinsically bad, e.g., because of examples like the masochist who 'enjoys' intense pain, I am willing to weaken the thesis at issue to the claim that involuntary suffering is intrinsically bad. I personally do not think that pathological cases like the masochist suffice to invalidate the stronger claim of the unrestricted intrinsic badness of all suffering (in my view, the masochist is deeply confused about his own values), but since we will need only the weaker claim for our subsequent discussion, I am happy to retreat to it in the present context in order to avoid unnecessary skirmishes that are not central to the issue at hand.
2) “How can you claim that suffering is objectively bad? Maybe there is no objectivity to be had in moral and ethical matters. Perhaps there even are no moral facts at all.”
Reply: All I mean by “objective” in this context is that anybody who is cognitively and emotionally properly functioning ought to agree that (involuntary) suffering is intrinsically bad. The arguments presented on this page will not convince anybody who does not agree that (involuntary) suffering is intrinsically bad. But, at the same time, I would like to suggest that there is something seriously wrong with such a person. Denying that (involuntary) suffering is intrinsically bad reveals a malfunction, just like, say, denying that there is a big elephant in front of you reveals a malfunction (when, in fact, there is a big elephant in front of you). In the latter case, the malfunction is merely cognitive, in the former case, it is cognitive and affective.
As long as we are talking about the suffering of human beings, most people seem to share the view that (involuntary) suffering is bad. This is why we take it to be our responsibility and moral obligation to try to alleviate the suffering of other human beings as much as we can without sacrificing anything of comparable value, or, at least, without sacrificing something that is of significant value. And this is, obviously, right and good. (Of course, not everybody acts in this way, but most people at least agree that this is what they ought to do.)
But human beings are not the only creatures capable of suffering. Animals can and do suffer as well. And, as stated above, it does not take away from the intrinsic badness of the suffering that it is an animal and not a human being who suffers (involuntarily). This does not imply that the suffering of a human being might not be worse than the suffering of an animal (although I personally do not agree with this sentiment); all that is asserted here is that the (involuntary) suffering of animals is ALSO bad.
Unfortunately, despite its apparent obviousness, this view about the badness of animal suffering does not seem to be very popular at all. It is not the case that most people take it to be their responsibility and moral obligation to try to alleviate the (involuntary) suffering of animals as much as they can without sacrificing anything of significant value. In fact, the situation is even worse; much worse. Not only is it not the common view to regard it as our duty to try to help animals in their plight, most people do not even seem to be perturbed by the fact that most animal suffering is CAUSED by us human beings. Someone might want to interject at this point that some of this suffering is necessary, e.g., for medical research. These are difficult issues, and much more careful work is needed to reach a definitive verdict on this question. But for now the important point to stress is that even if some of the suffering of animals turns out to be necessary, it is still the case that some of it is NOT necessary. In fact, the lion share of it is not necessary. Most of the suffering of animals is needless (involuntary) suffering caused by human beings. This is simply terrible.
Possible objections: 1) “How do you know that animals are capable of suffering? It is possible to argue that suffering is a quite complex and sophisticated mental state, which requires cognitive capacities that animals lack, e.g., the capacity to be reflectively aware of one’s own mental states. Unless you can establish that animals are capable of suffering, your argument can be dismissed.”
Reply: First a brief general comment about the spirit of this objection. The judgment that the suggested argument can be disregarded unless I can establish that animals are capable of suffering is fundamentally misguided. In matters that have a moral or ethical dimension the stakes are very high, which means that the chances of erring on the side of morality should be kept as minimal as possible. So, contrary to the sentiment expressed in this objection, it is much more prudent and reasonable to assert that unless it can be established that animals are incapable of suffering, the proposed argument needs to be taken very seriously. Now, it is plausible to hold the view that there are different kinds of suffering, or sufferings of different degrees, and it might be that some of them require cognitive capacities that animals lack. But this does not mean that animals are not capable of any kind of suffering at all. As we commonly understand the term, being capable of experiencing pain is regarded as sufficient for being capable of suffering. Being in pain is understood as a form of suffering. And there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that animals are capable of feeling pain. Of course, there is always room for skeptical doubt about the existence of mental states that are not your own, but this academic doubt applies to the mental states of the Pope just as much as to the mental states of an avergage pig. And with regard to the question of whether the being in question can experience pain, the external evidence (behavioral clues, physiological symptoms, neuronal activity in specific regions of the brain etc.) is as conclusive in the case of the Pope as in the case of the pig.
2) “I do agree with you that suffering is bad, but only if the suffering in question is the suffering of human beings. Animal suffering is a whole different matter, and I do not agree that it is bad.”
Reply: First, notice that the person who raises this objection does not agree with me that (involuntary) suffering is intrinsically bad, for the qualification “intrinsic” means precisely that the badness of the suffering wholly depends on the suffering itself, and not on any other factors, including whose suffering it is. As mentioned above, to my mind the expression of this view indicates a malfunction on the part of the person who holds it. The malfunction can be one of two different kinds: either the person is confused about her own reasons for why she regards human suffering to be bad, in which case the malfunction is merely a cognitive one and can be easily remedied, or the person really believes that only human suffering is bad in which case she has a false belief (cognitive malfunction) that at the same time reveals a serious character defect (affective malfunction). I would like to believe that most people who feel initially drawn to the objection under discussion fall into the first category, and I actually think that this is the case. I expect that if people reflect carefully on why they think that the suffering of human beings is bad, they sooner or later will come to the conclusion that it is bad, not because we are talking about human beings, but because suffering is bad. And this recognition amounts to agreeing that the badness of the suffering is wholly dependent on the suffering itself, i.e., that suffering is intrinsically bad after all, which implies that the suffering of animals is also bad. To people who fall into the second category I do not have anything more to say, just as I do not have anything more to say to someone who, after carefully examining the reasons for his view, persists in denying that there is a big elephant in front of him (when, in fact, there is a big elephant in front of him).
3) “I agree that animal suffering is also bad, but since the intrinsic value of human beings is so much greater than the intrinsic value of animals we are justified in causing animals to suffer as long as there is some benefit for us in it. The badness of the animal suffering is far outweighed by the goodness of the benefits for us.”
Reply: In Peter Singer’s useful terminology, a person who advocates a view like this, i.e., who allows the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species, is a speciesist. In his classic Animal Liberation, Peter Singer provides a powerful argument against speciesism, and I have nothing to add to it. Singer’s basic idea is to point out that speciesism exhibits the same logical structure as racism or sexism: racists give greater weight to the interests of members of their own race, sexists give greater weight to the interests of members of their own sex, speciesists give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species. Most of us agree that racism and sexism are wrong, since they represent a violation of the principle of equality, i.e., the principle that the interests of everybody should receive equal consideration. But this means that we should also agree that speciesism is wrong, since the interests of animals should also be given equal consideration. I agree whole-heartedly. Concretely, this implies that the badness of animal suffering cannot be counted as 'outweighed' by any old benefit that human beings might get from it. As indicated above, there might be cases where the benefit for human beings indeed outweighes the badness of the animal suffering, e.g., in certain special animal experiments in the context of clinical research (although this might be questioned too.) But in the vast majority of cases, the trivial benefits for human beings (e.g., the pleasures we might derive from going to the circus, eating meat, and wearing fur coats) pale in comparison to the immense suffering that the animals have to undergo in order for us to be able to enjoy these benefits.
Sometimes one hears the following bad argument in defense of cruelty against animals, which differs from the considerations rehearsed so far: “It is natural that the stronger take advantage of the weaker. We are stronger than animals. Therefore, we are morally justified in taking (or morally permitted to take) advantage of animals.” A similar, and similarly bad, argument that also seems to be wide-spread goes like this: “All across the animal kingdom the stronger take advantage of the weaker. We are stronger than animals. Therefore, we are morally justified in taking (or morally permitted to take) advantage of animals.”
Reply: There are several problems with these arguments. First, there is the obvious point that the extent of our taking advantage of animals by far surpasses the extent of any other advantage-taking that can be found in the animal kingdom. And one could plausibly claim that, if anything, the arguments only establish that advantage-taking within certain limits is justified, e.g., to the extent that it is required to ensure the survival of one’s own species. But this is not the main problem with the arguments. The main problem is that both arguments rest on respective further premises that are untenable.
The first argument relies on the assumption that there is a connection between the ‘naturalness’ of an action or event and its moral qualities. More precisely, the argument rests on the implicit premise that the naturalness of an action implies that it is morally justified, or morally permissible. But it is not clear that there is such a connection at all, and it is even less clear that naturalness vouches for moral permissibility. For instance, in one sense of ‘natural’ it is perfectly natural for human beings to decide their disputes by fist fighting, but we would be reluctant to claim that violently boxing your opponent on the nose is a morally permissible move in an argument. In response to this example one might be tempted to reply that there are other conceptions of what it means for an action to be natural for human beings on which, it could be argued, fist fighting in the service of solving disputes turns out not to be natural, e.g., the conception that an action is natural for a human being if, and only if, an ideal human being would be disposed to perform it under ideal conditions, or something along those lines. This reply is a perfectly reasonable (and natural) one, and it helps to bring into focus two more problems with the first argument. First, one could deny the first premise. Just as one might not agree that fist fighting in the service of solving disputes is natural for human beings, one might not agree that it is natural for human beings to take advantage of weaker creatures. This might be natural for tigers, but not for human beings. Secondly - and this is really the main problem with the first argument - it is notoriously difficult to specify exactly what ‘natural’ is supposed to mean, and as long as the proponent of the first argument has not done that, he has not provided an argument at all, but merely made some meaningless noises. And the prospects for coming up with a sense of ‘natural’ on which naturalness implies moral permissibility look quite dim.
The second argument relies on the implicit premise that if a certain creature C treats other creatures in a certain way, then any other creature is morally justified in treating C in this way as well. The main problem with this premise is that it fails to take account of the fact that it is precisely what makes us ‘stronger’ than animals, namely, our rationality and our superior intelligence, that also makes us subject to additional norms that animals are not subject to. These norms are moral norms. In order for someone to be held morally responsible for his/her actions, he/she must be able to perform certain higher-level cognitive tasks, e.g., he/she must be able to reflect on his/her actions, form intentions, recognize the difference between ought and is, and between right and wrong, etc. Most animals are not capable of performing these higher-level cognitive tasks, which means that they cannot be held morally responsible for what they do. Now, the fact that we are subject to moral norms and that we are morally responsible for our actions, while animals are not, implies that there are certain actions that are impermissible for us on moral grounds, but that are not impermissible for animals. (Note, this does not mean that animals are morally justified in, say, eating each other; it merely means that the actions of animals, including their eating each other, are outside the moral sphere altogether. They are neither moral nor immoral; they are non-moral, if you will.) And taking advantage of the weaker is one of the actions that are impermissible for us on moral grounds. (Why? Suffering is intrinsically bad. Taking advantage of the weaker is a form of causing suffering, and, thus, amounts to increasing the amount of badness in the world. We ought not do that.) In other words, the premise required to make the second argument work is false since whether a certain behavior toward another creature is morally justified/permissible or not does not merely depend on the behavior of the other creature but primarily on the principles of morality. To illustrate the point, imagine that you observe two young men who are both severely mentally disabled. The bigger one of the two punches the smaller one in the stomach and eats the smaller one’s candy bar. We would not want to say that you are now justified in punching the bigger guy in the stomach and eating his candy bar (even if we suppose that you are bigger than the big guy). If you proceeded to cut his head open, inject shampoo in his eyes, subject him to electro-shocks, and chain him to the wall in a bare metal cage (to keep the proportions of the example correct, since that is what humans do to animals), we would be scandalized and you would be put in jail. The defense that the bigger disabled man himself treated the smaller one badly would be regarded as outrageous. In sum, both of the suggested arguments do not work at all.
A final possible objection: “Animal suffering is indeed terrible, and what you say about it is all well and good. But, unfortunately, the world is such that we have our hands more than full already with trying to alleviate human suffering. I agree that it would be nice to do something for animals as well, but there is only so much we can do, and if there is a choice, we should first help human beings.”
Reply: This objection assumes that we are faced with a choice between helping to minimize the amount of human suffering due to natural catastrophes (and other human beings whom we consider evil) and helping to minimize the amount of animal suffering due to natural catastrophes (and other human beings whom we consider evil). But this is not the right description of the situation. The right description of the situation is that we ought to reduce the amount of human suffering due to natural catastrophes (and evil human beings), and that we ought not to increase the amount of suffering in the world by causing animals to suffer, i.e., that we ought not to be actively evil ourselves. If described in this way, it becomes more than clear that the two projects, i.e., of helping human beings and of helping animals, do not conflict at all, at least not as long as there is so much animal suffering that can be prevented without spending any of the resources that might be used to reduce human suffering. Concretely, your decision not to eat meat, not to purchase products from companies that allow cruelty against animals, not to go to the circus or bull-fights, not to buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals, and not to be mean to your neighbor’s dog do not interfere at all with anything you might possibly do to help reduce the amount of human suffering in this world.