Thursday, May 19, 2005

Animal Rights, Human Responsibility

I will argue that although (as far as we know) animals are not endowed with the reasoning capabilities necessary to consider them moral agents and thus grant them parity with humans under common law, as sentient, feeling beings they do hold certain natural rights. I will argue that these rights of "lower" species are directly connected to humanity's responsibility as reasonable beings and moral agents. I will focus my points mainly in relation to Carl Cohen's essay against animal rights.
Does any measure of human happiness--no matter how small--justify any measure of animal suffering--no matter how great? To answer "yes" seems selfish at best. Just because human suffering should be weighted more than animal suffering does not mean that animal suffering is dismissible.
Cohen argues only a moral agent can lay claim to a right, and any non-moral agent has absolutely no rights. This seems to lead to undesirable consequences. What can be said of human non-moral agents such as infants and the mentally infirm? One could argue that a healthy infant contains the potential for moral agency, but what of the mentally ill or retarded who have no such potential. Do we owe them no consideration? If rights are granted solely on the basis of the ability to reason and make moral claims, there would be no rational for including such non-moral agents, whether they be human or non-human. Thus the suffering of a mentally retarded child would not be something we had a responsibility to curtail, unless, I suppose, it brought us happiness to do so. But, from a Utilitarian point of view, should it bring greater happiness or better results to experiment on or kill such humans, there would be nothing morally stopping us from doing do since they had no rights.
If one were to argue that humans have certain rights by the mere virtue of being of the homo sapiens sapiens species, regardless of any other determining factors, their argument would seem to affirm a claim of speciesism. If one were to get around this problem, it seems one would be forced to argue that despite the human's lack of mental faculties, he or she still experiences pain and pleasure and this deserves consideration. If so for morally incapacitated humans then why not for non-moral animals?
I believe that animals, just as mentally incapacitated humans, have a claim as sentient beings. I also believe this claim, though not supported by the subjects own moral authority, is supported by the ethical responsibility of moral agents.
As moral agents, we have not only a responsibility to ourselves and other moral agents, but a responsibility to the greater world around us, including non-moral agents. These responsibilities are different, but that does not mean that the latter can be ignored when it is convenient to do so. If we ignore our responsibility to the non-moral world around us, or base our use of it only on the greatest perceived good for moral agents, we put ourselves outside the natural order--which we are not.
Humans, one may argue, can lay claim to a world of reason and ideas that animals may not. This is quite possibly completely true. However, humans are also part of a greater biological order and have a dual responsibility within that order to maintain individual and species survival. I believe this responsibility facilitates a claim on behalf of non-moral agents and the environment. As with humans, all other sentient life forms in this order can be said to have a right of self preservation, and insofar as this does not conflict with another's self preservation, this right should be affirmed.
It is true that animals cannot murder, but Cohen places the definition of murder strictly within the confines of a guilty mind, or by (my own) inference, a mind capable of feeling guilt. I feel this disregards moral and biological reality. In contemporary law, one may commit a murder with no guilt and one may feel guilty for a killing that is not considered murder. The designation of murder is placed not in the guilt of the perpetrators mind, but the circumstances and necessity (or lack of) of the action. Killing in self-defense: the taking of a life when that life poses an immediate threat to one's own life is seen as different from the taking of life for material, emotional or physical gain or convenience. To not attempt to defend one's self or species against extinction by another is to violate one's first responsibility: that of preservation.
It is in this similar way that animals kill and are killed, in the name of self-preservation and the overall preservation of the species, and in this I find certain animal suffering and interference morally permissible. Whereas an act that causes animal suffering can be said to further human preservation (not merely happiness) I find no contradiction with the stance that we have an obligation to honor the "rights" of animals to be free of unnecessary suffering as part of our overall obligation to be a preserving component of the material world.
I believe in this light the disregard of animal suffering in most instances is immoral. To allow suffering and death in such cases where only happiness and convenience are at stake is analogous to murder insofar as it is the unnecessary taking of life.
If one agrees that there must be a line drawn between what is necessary (morally permissible) suffering and unnecessary (immoral) suffering, then the question remains where to draw the line. Should we draw the line at immediate preservation, as in the case of justifiable homicide or a lion killing a gazelle? Should we allow for suffering when it is perceived to facilitate preservation in more vague terms, such as "quality of life" issues like health and the economy? I feel there is some elbow room here, but that the parameters must be clearly defined so as to avoid abuse of this flexibility.
Clearly, animal suffering done in the pursuit of cures for terminal diseases is morally permissible. However, it is important that alternatives are considered and that animal experimentation a last, not first resort. Animal research done for such things as cosmetics and cosmetic diseases, such as baldness and acne, though they would increase human happiness, would not be permissible since they have little, if any, bering on preservation.
Obviously, if one is starving and animals present a food source it is permissible to kill them. But we must also consider the fact that humans are omnivores and our bodies require a certain amount of animal product to maintain overall health. I believe that nutrition has a great enough weight on our overall preservation as to allow the consumption of animal products. However, I also believe this consumption should be minimal and nutritional alternatives should be considered first.
An important factor in the morality of animal products is the way the animals are treated. Is needless suffering avoided? Need death be particularly painful and life particularly unnatural? If animals are treated with care and not forced into situations in extreme counter to their natural ones, such as tight cages, surgical modifications and improper diet (i.e., the use of meat products in herbivorous animals' feed), they may actually achieve a longer, less painful life than in the wild. Such treatment would make their death in the service of human preservation morally acceptable.
Will practical adherence to this position be difficult? Yes. We live in a culture that is still very much based of the idea that humanity lies outside and above the rest of the world. I believe that this position is ultimately self-distructive, that to deny our place in the material world is to deny ourselves in favor of an illusion. Denial of the right and responsibility of self-preservation not only creates suffering in the non-human world, but breeds an arrogance that leads to destructiveness and suffering in the human realm.
If I have been convincing in any of my arguments, the moral importance of claiming our responsibility overrides matters of convenience and fashion. As long as it does not conflict with one's own right of preservation, every attempt must be made to reduce the suffering we inflict on other sentient beings. To not do so, whether by apathy or active rebellion, would be immoral.