Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.


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