Monthly Archives: December 2008

Recommendations on Animal Rights Books Published in 2008

Animals As Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation Gary Francione
Columbia University Press, 2008

If the right of animals to not be exploited, intentionally killed, and used as property is ever taken seriously by future generations, Professor Gary Francione will very likely be seen as the most important thinker to write on the topic. Gary Francione’s ideas are indispensible if animal rights or any meaningful protection of animals is ever to come about. There are various reasons why this judgment is not widely shared today in our society. First and foremost of those reasons are the deep cultural prejudice, anthropocentrism, and speciesism of society-at-large, including prejudices within the so-called animal “rights” movement. Professor Francione is an iconoclast who employs careful reasoning from moral principles that most of us already accept to destroy the prejudice and dogma infecting our thoughts, habits, and behavior as they impact sentient nonhuman beings. A second reason that Francione’s ideas are not widely accepted, closely related to the first, is that there is very little money to be made by nonprofit animal organizations in vegan education; but there is plenty of money to be made in what Francione criticizes: welfare reform efforts or, as welfarists like to call it, “picking the low hanging fruit”.

Animals As Persons is made up of seven essays that collectively provide an excellent summary of Professor Francione’s thought. The first essay introduces the reader to his abolitionist theory. The second essay is a response to various critics who deny that the property status of animals is an insurmountable problem. The third essay is on how the “similar minds” approach to assessing the moral importance of animal suffering is inadequate. The fourth essay is a reply to Professor Cass Sunstein’s critique of Professor Francione’s book, Introduction to Animal Rights. The fifth essay discusses the two questions of empirical necessity and moral justification regarding the use of animals in biomedical research. The sixth essay explains why the feminist ethic of care does not provide protection that extends beyond rights and how it is merely another form of new welfarist theory which, like Peter Singer’s theory, seeks to provide greater weight to the interests of nonhumans while retaining the hierarchy of humans. The final essay critiques Professor Emeritus Tom Regan’s “lifeboat scenario” and points out how it is more of a problem for Regan’s theory of animal rights than Francione originally thought.

Whether you’re new to Gary Francione’s thought or very familiar with it, I highly recommend this book. It includes enough of the basics in accessible language to be a good introduction to someone new to the topics, while adding sufficient new material that has not been widely published previously for those already familiar with his work to profit from reading it.

Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship

Gary Steiner
Columbia University Press, 2008

Animals and the Moral Community takes up two major topics in six chapters. The first three chapters, drawing on previous works of philosophy and cognitive ethology, take the reader on a superb tour and analysis of both historical and current thought on the mental life of animals, settling on a moderate and compelling theory of animal minds that avoids the attribution to animals of complex and abstract cognition (i.e. conceptual rationality) found in normal adult humans and avoids the ludicrous neo-Cartesian denial of perceptual intelligence and experiential awareness. Bringing out the important difference between perceptual intelligence and conceptual rationality, Professor Steiner states at the end of these chapters on animal minds, “Animals are intelligent creatures with subjective states of awareness. The more we come to appreciate this fact, the less we will be able to cling to a related anthropocentric prejudice, namely, that animals, being cognitively inferior to humans, are morally inferior as well.” (p. 88) This leads us to the second major topic of the book: moral status and kinship.

In discussing the moral status of and our kinship with animals, Steiner explores the conflict between liberal individualism and animal rights. As it has been traditionally conceived, liberal individualism posits Kantian rational autonomy of the moral agent as a necessary criterion for inclusion in the moral community. As such, many thinkers today who uncritically accept this traditional conception of liberal individualism, but nevertheless realize that the degree and severity of our exploitation of animals is morally unacceptable, have sought to argue that animals have sufficient cognitive abilities (i.e. minds sufficiently similar to human minds) to be included in a moral community that espouses traditional liberal individualism. Their opponents, of course, have denied such cognitive ability, but neither side has come to question the legitimacy of positing Kantian rational autonomy as a necessary criterion in the first place.

Drawing on Gary Francione’s rejection of what Francione calls “similar minds theory”, Professor Steiner also rejects the notion that the moral status of animals is a function of how similar animal minds are to human minds. Rather, the morally relevant criterion is sentience. Specifically, Steiner’s view “is that perceptual experience (as defined in chapter 3) is sufficient, although perhaps not necessary, for moral status.”

So how are we to overcome the existing paradigm of liberal individualism as traditionally conceived and its anthropocentric emphasis on Kantian rational autonomy and the exclusive liberty of the Kantian rational agent? The remaining two chapters of the book are dedicated to answering this question.

Gary Steiner introduces us to a broader and more logically consistent and holistic conception of justice that goes beyond the narrow confines of social justice with its emphasis on agency and reciprocity to what he calls “cosmic justice” in the context of what he describes as “cosmic holism”, which recognizes our similarities and kinship with other sentient beings. It is our common striving for life and well-being that brings humans and nonhumans together in kinship. Our rationality allows us to recognize this kinship and compels us to respect the mutual striving and struggle for well-being and modify our attitudes and behavior accordingly; in particular, our rationality ultimately compels us to go and stay vegan.

The careful and thorough analysis of the nature of sentient nonhuman beings and the relation of that nature to a clear and detailed explanation of a conception of justice that is far more logically consistent and holistic than that found in traditional liberal individualism makes this book a must-read for both experts and those new to animal rights.

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