There was a time when it was commonly accepted by “civilized” people that those of non-European descent deserved to be chattel. There was a time when women could be viewed as property. In general, it seems that humanity has over time increased its level of moral sophistication and expanded its moral universe. In particular, there has been a focus on rights-based analysis: People have intrinsic rights, inalienable, and it is always wrong to eclipse them. In the modern era, there are many, such as Regan, who submit that perhaps the next logical evolution in our expanding moral universe is animal rights, treating animals with certain inalienable levels of treatment
Regan makes clear that animal rights generally mean just that: Rights that animals have to certain levels of treatment. Like all rights analyses, these arguments are deontological rather than utiltitarian or consequentialist. Even if you can get a “good” outcome for killing a cow or experimenting on a rabbit, it is wrong because it violates some norm that, if the violation were universalized, would cease to exist. Society as a whole might benefit from animal testing, but it is still torture.
A key assumption to this argument is some kind of parallelism between animal and humanity. Virtually no one sheds a tear for the destruction of a rock. If a rock needs to be destroyed for society’s good, there is no hand-wringing. Consequentalist analysis is assumed when we are speaking of the purely material world. Thus, animal rights debates center not just on the classic deontological-consequentialist debate, but also on the issues: What is life? If we view life as divine, is that divinity only confined to man? What matters in our moral universe? Is it sentience? If so, how much sentience? Is it the ability to feel pain? If so, to what degree of sensitivity?
There are some who argue that animal rights are absolute, that just as a human’s free speech can never be violate so can an animal’s rights against pain or death never be undermined. Regan contrasts these people with those who view animal rights as something more contingent and fluid (70). The two groups have clear differences. The latter group could justify animal experimentation, or slaughter for meat or leather, if there was an immensely compelling social reason. Notice that the latter group would still reject, say, cosmetics testing on animals. Cosmetics testing does not meet the threshold of social value that they prescribe. There are some who are of neither opinion, who hold that animals are essentially dispensable. For them, humane slaughter is absurd unless it’s also more efficient. Ted Nugent might be considered a member of this movement that views humans and animals as in two totally separate moral universes.
When the Ted Nugent example is considered, the fact that the first two groups have commonalities becomes obvious (Regan, 70). Both agree with some limits on animal abuse: The question is if those limits are absolute, just like they would be in the case of a person, or relative, like they might be for something more sensitive.
Regan argues that coordination between these two groups is utterly possible in general but not as much so in specific. “If part of the deep ecologists rationale for saving wilderness is so that future generations can savor the orgiastic blood of the hunt… animal liberationists can and should unashamedly applaud the efforts to preserve, but not the reasons for doing so” (Regan, 70). Regan has two concerns about these solidarity initiatives. First: The “Goliath” of ecological issues might overwhelm the “David” of animal rights. In fact, it is transparent that these are two different movements entirely. Imagine an instance where a particular invasive species, say some species of deer, was wreaking ecological havoc. Ecological advocates would argue for their (humane) hunting or introducing a disease or predator element; animal rights advocates would argue that this is tantamount to murder.
Regan quotes Singer and notes that Singer is not dismissing animal rights. “g, Singer points to a particular capacity-namely, the capacity for suffering or, as he says a few lines later, the capacity for “suffering and/or enjoyment”-as the basis for the right to equal consideration. No mention is made of utilitarian considerations. On the contrary, it would not be an unnatural, even if it should turn out to be an incorrect, interpretation to say that Singer thinks that certain beings have the right to equal consideration of interests because of their nature-because, as a matter of their nature, they have the capacity to suffer or to enjoy or both. Arguably, Singer could be interpreted as thinking that some animals, at least, have one natural right: the right to equal consideration of their interests. Nor is this right the only right Singer mentions. To avoid the preju- dice which Singer, following Richard Ryder, calls “speciesism,” we must “allow that beings which are similar (to humans) in all relevant respects have a similar right to life.” (Ryder, 306).
Ryder’s rebuttal of Singer is compelling. A pure utilitarian cannot logically take the stand that something has inalienable rights (308-316). However, I think that there is some degree of satire here too. No one is a pure utilitarian. No utilitarian has ever said that if one person is tortured but that brings ten million people cheaper cable TV that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. There is always a presumed magnitude analysis, where certain crimes curve upwards asymptotically to near-infinite value. A consistent utilitarian argument in this vein could go something like this: “Torturing tens of thousands of animals, who are equal to people and thus must be considered as stakeholders, to improve the enjoyment of tens of thousands of humans is not ecologically sensible and it isn’t just. While perhaps a starving Third World country could justify eating meat, certainly a First World nation that can feed the planet with its agricultural excess shouldn’t be given that consideration. Animals should be counted in analyses, and only if the number of people versus the number of animals or the good versus the harm is compelling should the harm be committed”.
Singer talks about mentally challenged humans and argues that animals are treated worse than they are which is logically and morally absurd (Ryder, 319). Ryder argues that “ (i) it is wrong to treat human morons in the ways in question; (2) we would not (and should not) change this judgment in the ways utilitarianism, egoism or Kantianism would require, if the future happened to change in the ways described earlier; (3) if, in our search for the most adequate moral theory on which to ground this belief, we are driven to postulating that human morons (even) have certain rights; and (4) if the grounds underlying their possessing the rights they possess are common grounds, as it were, between them and many other animals. If all this is correct, then I think the case for animal rights is very strong indeed. But even if none of it is right, this must be because my arguments are unsound, not because there are no arguments at all. Though I might be confused in my reasoning, I think I can tell the difference between reasoning and rhetoric” (Ryder , 324). The problem is that mentally disabled people are frequently in a class like children because they can’t treat themselves or take care of themselves.
In any respect, Ryder’s general point that animals have some degree of rights is well-taken, but I wonder what this means in practice. Neither Ryder nor Singer explore a lot of the important questions.
For example: If we choose pain as our dividing line, what level of pain-feeling is relevant? Oysters and insects don’t seem to meaningfully feel pain. Can we eat them? What about fish? The reason why analysis of morality for humans is so easy is because we are all of one kind in most important respects. But animals have a dizzying array of relationships to us. I think that it is actually insulting to animals to treat animals as if they were humans: They are not, they have their own wild beauty and so protecting it is valuable but not because they are analogs to us. Further, if feeling pain is all that matters, then painless slaughter has no moral problems.
Is the problem, then, that they’re alive, so that killing them, even painlessly, is awful? This is acceptable, except then the problem is that plants and bacteria are also alive. But human beings can’t survive if they eat nothing. The argument logically leads to the suffering of people.
The problem is that we have an inherent tradeoff: For some, humans, to grow and be healthy, other life forms like bacteria, insects, mammals and plants must suffer or die. What I think is the only consistent norm is that we treat all of them with respect. They are all different from us, and deserve different treatment: No universal norm makes sense. Certainly, experimentation of cosmetics on animals is repellent since no one needs cosmetics. Humans are animals too: We have a role, which the deep ecologists argue is as caretakers and stewards. We should embrace that role. Hopefully, we will be able to come up with a way in our moral universe to include everything from insects to bacteria to plants and afford them an appropriate level of respect.