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September 05, 2003

Animal Rights

Over at S. Buck, there is a great, but flawed, argument which gives credibility to that idea that animal rights are not inherent to the animals but are only in the eye of the beholder.

But if one believes that animals have intrinsic rights (even if they're not equal to ours) and it is the duty of society to protect these rights, then society is duty-bound to protect seals not only from hunters, but from polar bears and orcas! Because human beings have intrinsic rights, the police are obligated to come to my aid whether I'm being attacked by an assailant or an alligator. It doesn't matter who or what is interfering with my right to preservation, the police will help me because they protect my basic rights. If animals had similarly intrinsic rights, it wouldn't matter what was hurting them, man or animal, either. But while the police will stop a man from beating a chicken, they won't stop the fox with a chicken in its jaws (except to protect the property rights of a rancher that owns the chicken).

My suspicion is that libertarians think it's wrong for people to kill seals or beat dogs, but don't believe its wrong for an orca to bite off a seal's flipper or for a bear to maul a dog. No advocacy group is pressuring government to protect seals from bears, pheasants from foxes, or rabbits from hawks.

The author takes this syllogism into a weird direction about who is religious and who isn't, but it's very illustrative.

Posted by mbowen at September 5, 2003 03:04 PM

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As with most arguments proffered by the opponents of animal rights, I see the flaws here and nothing of greatness.

The guiding principles of the modern animal rights movement come mostly from Peter Singer, who is a utilitarian who would see no paradox in the argument above.

For utilitarians, moral problems are resolved by a measurement of greater good. A bear's survival -- unlike a human's -- is contingent on killing other animals. Therefore the bears right to maul a seal is morally equal to the seal's right not to be mauled. It is a moral tie and therefore precludes any necessity for intervention on the part of humans.

Humans, however, kill and eat animals not because they have to (by all accounts a vegetarian diet is healthier) but because they're partial to the taste. Therefore we are left to measure the moral weight of liking the taste of steak against the moral weight of doing great violence to highly sentient creatures, fouling rivers and streams with animal waste, and depriviing other humans of vital grain supplies.

Posted by: MM at September 7, 2003 09:56 AM

I would argue that the human appetite for meat is evolutionary. We like it because we need it; it is our nature to eat it.

Despite the fact that our ways and means of food production may not be sustainable, this 'choice' to eat meat is natural. It is as natural as our 'choice' not to eat wood. Our bodies are not built to digest it, but they are built to digest meat.

I am not arguing about degree, but simply whether people should eat meat at all, and the answer is meat is appropriate.

What if some scientist bioengineered a new kind of bacteria that produced an enzyme that allowed humans to drink seawater and eat wood? In order to save animals, would it be proper to set humans loose into these other parts of the biosphere? I'd say not. Rather I'd notice that it is particularly interesting that of all the species of animals, fish and insects, humans are almost completely dependent on fewer than a couple hundred.

We've got beef cattle, lamb, pigs and chickens - just four species providing the overwhelming majority of meat protien in America. It's not bears, seals, whales...

Posted by: Cobb at September 7, 2003 10:20 AM

Well, you may well argue that eating meat is evolutionary but you haven't here. You've simply stated it flatly. But it doesn't matter really, as what human beings do 'naturally' is of no argumentative consequence in regard to what humans should do ethically, unless you think murder, theft, rape and being generally unpleasant are unnatural.

Back in the day when humans did not have abundant options in regard to food -- or for modern day humans who are still dependent on hunting -- the ethical stakes are/were different than they are now. I would agree that anyone dependent on meat for survival is perfectly within their rights to kill. That's not most meat eaters.

As to what our bodies are built for -- we do not, in fact, have the classic carnivore anatomy (a very short, quick, digestive system) and it's plain that a vegetarian diet is as healthy if not healthier than a meat-based one.

As to the seawater and wood -- that scenario is unlikely seeing as how there are already enough vegetables to sustain us. But I appreciate your raising the issue of environmental consequences. Meat production has provably negative consequences for the environment (fouling of water, depletion of forest lands) as well as food distribution (grain protein going to the production of inedible hair and hooves that would be better used by hungry humans). If we're going to talk about environmental consequences, it seems to me the burden is on you.

In a nutshell, the argumentative burden is to show that eating an animal because you like the way it tastes has a higher moral weight than the negative consequences of killing it. So far you haven't.

Posted by: MM at September 7, 2003 04:52 PM

That humans have evolved to digest meat is self-evident, but you are correct that's not an ethical argument in itself, it's just about as far as I ever argue. But I think this is all a bourgie proposition entirely dependant on the means of food production in society.

An assertion that animals have inalienable rights means that there is no relativism at all, but I think you agree with me that the moral weight of choices for food is relative to the ability of the individual. This is why I bring up the point about future inventions. If we are too primitive to stop killing plants and animals to eat will be condemned by future generations for violating some principle? I say no. There is no principle involving animals themselves, rather there are humans deciding a moral framework for other humans. That is not to say that the ways and means of food production is not a moral free zone, its simply not as weighty as the consideration of human rights.

That said I find the weightiest issues in food production on the supply side, not the demand side. Just as I don't find anybody particularly superior for consuming certain types of movies, I don't find vegans particularly superior. But I am more likely to be critical of a movie producer (or director) than I am of a second order consumer. For that reason I won't get bogged down in the identity politics of vegetarians, but I will criticize McDonalds for throwing the ecosystem out of whack, and I will applaud Whole Foods for creating an alternative market.

In that direction, I have been very impressed by folks like Temple Grandin.

Posted by: Cobb at September 7, 2003 08:31 PM