Property Status and Animal Welfare: Two Deep Roots of Cruelty

Before we start on this essay, we should be aware that both last week’s essay, and as we will see, this one, are dealing with moral philosophy (i.e. reasoning from basic moral principles), the law (property rights, individual rights, and welfare laws), and empirical and rational fact (e.g. the full sentience of nonhumans and its relevance to a basic right to physical security). Yes, there are gray areas and dilemmas in some questions of moral philosophy, but the areas we’re covering now, despite controversy, are mostly black, white, and straight forward.The controversy comes from our acculturation and our moral psychology, or the question, “Why be moral (especially when nobody else is)?” Most people are intelligent enough to at least follow the easy moral reasoning that I’ve set forth and will continue to set forth in this blog. The controversy and conflict comes from the social momentum of the acceptance of animal consumption (i.e. acculturation) and the psychological conditioningof life-long habits that current non-vegans experience in the face of and opposed to straightforward moral reasoning from basic moral principles; moral principles which were already plainly accepted long before a consistent application in clear reasoning was made to nonhumans. I understand the inner emotional turbulence faced by conscientious non-vegans, but I encourage non-vegans to continue with moral and emotional strength and courage in honestly questioning the status quo and making the modifications in behavior which recognize the moral value of nonhuman beings.In last week’s essay, we established the moral fact of the basic right of nonhuman beings to physical security against humans in virtue of their sentience. Since sentient nonhumans are no different from humans in the only relevant criterion for holding the basic right to physical security (i.e. sentience), this moral fact is just as secure in knowledge when applied to nonhumans as when applied to humans. If sentient nonhumans don’t have this basic right, then humans don’t either. If a nonhuman being’s life is worthless, then so is all life worthless, obviously including ours. From my viewpoint, however, all life with a high degree of sentience (which includes all “food”, “entertainment”, and “research” animals) has inherent value which must be respected as an end in itself.

Inherent Value

There is another basic right which will be the topic of this essay which is essential to the basic right to physical security: the basic right not to be treated as a thing. We often value humans as a means to an end; but morally, most of us agree that valuing humans exclusively as a means to an end is wrong. We might pay one employee far more in compensation and rewards than another employee, but we don’t kill, maim, torture, dispose of, or own that employee as a thing. Another way of conveying the same idea is that humans, regardless of their utility value to others, or the quality or misery of their life, or their intelligence or severe lack thereof, or any other characteristic, have equal inherent value or value as ends in themselves. If the equal inherent value of a human is ignored and the only value that human has is his or her utility value or the value of some other characteristic, then that human being is treated as a thing and is therefore also outside of the moral community.

It is important to remember that equal inherent value, like the basic right to physical security, is based on sentience, defined in last week’s essay as a non-cognitive experience of a self (which includes the experience of pleasure and pain). Also, for precisely the same reasons that we cannot exclude sentient nonhumans from the basic right to physical security as explained in last week’s essay, we cannot exclude them from having equal inherent value. To exclude sentient nonhumans from having equal inherent value is as arbitrary as excluding intelligent and curious humans from education based on race or sex.

Property Status and the Law

American law recognizes two types of entities: persons and things. There is no middle category. During American slavery in the 19th century, a middle category was attempted, and slaves were considered “quasi-persons” or “ things-plus” or “3/5ths of a person”, but that category utterly failed to bring any significant “legal personhood” to slaves or any relief of the cruelty they endured as property of their owners. The law protects the rights of persons to do what they want with the things they own, and if there is ever a conflict between a person with property rights and the thing they own, property rights always win, regardless of any other law whatsoever “protecting” the thing. This was true without exception during American slavery, and it is true today in all of our relations with nonhuman beings.

The importance placed on property rights in Anglo-American law cannot be overemphasized here. Although I will not make any judgments about the propriety of this priority of property rights, it is not an overstatement to say that property rights are revered and sacred in the United States. Indeed, as irrational as it may be, it is not an exaggeration to say that some people in the United States consider their property rights to be just as important, if not more so, as their basic right to physical security (e.g. their right to life), and would just as soon be shot to death as give up even a trivial portion of property rights. This reverence for property rights is reflected in our courts and it is no surprise that the strongest slave welfare laws in the antebellum South did nothing to protect slaves, as chattel property, from unspeakable cruelty inflicted by their property owners. When the property rights meet welfare laws, it’s like a speeding freight train meeting a light warm breeze; the effect is negligible.

As long as it is the case that nonhumans are owned as things and their owners hold property rights over them (which is one and the same thing), welfare laws will never be able to protect against the flagrant and extreme cruelty which is routine in all of animal agriculture, much less protect equal inherent value or the basic right to physical security. The first fact that anyone genuinely concerned about animal cruelty must fully understand and accept is that welfare laws are and always will be impotent to prevent cruelty. The most welfare laws will do is to protect the interests of property owners in utilizing their property to its maximum economic potential. Welfare laws will always be disastrous for sentient nonhumans, doing no more than they have in the past: making humans feel better about the exploitation and cruelty inflicted on nonhumans.

Deep Roots of Cruelty

It has been established in this essay and last week’s essay that, if we are to avoid the exact same kind of cultural prejudice that upheld slavery and the subjugation of women for many centuries until the 20th century, then nonhuman beings must have equal inherent value and the basic right to physical security under the law, as they already do morally, whether it is recognized by law or not. A deep root of cruelty and one of the largest barriers to the prevention of cruelty (both industrial cruelty and household cruelty) is the moral and legal status of nonhuman beings as “things”. Another deep root supporting cruelty is the notion held by new welfarists that welfare laws can stand up to property rights and improve conditions for nonhumans in any significant way.

We do not need welfare campaigns to show the general public how cruel nonhumans are treated. Videos like The Faces of Free Range Farming and constant, widespread information on industry conditions will suffice to educate people over time. Industry cannot fight this because if they were forced to open their “free range”, “cage free”, “humane” and “compassionate” concentration camps and abattoirs to the public for regular widespread tours and viewing (even if only on television), the public reaction to the cruelty would defeat them quickly. Industry also cannot change because it is economically and logistically impossible to raise and slaughter billions of nonhumans for consumption without extreme cruelty. Indeed, it is each and every consumer of animal products, regardless of any “special labels” on those products, who are ultimately responsible for this extreme cruelty. With persistence and perseverance, our efforts at education will result in more people shedding cultural prejudices about sentient nonhumans and discovering that veganism is the only solution to the inevitable, widespread, and extreme cruelty endured by farmed animals, again, regardless of what “special label” is placed on the package, and that veganism is the only way to live in a morally adequate relationship to nonhuman beings.

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