19 December 2003

Categorizing Animals

Justice is not fairness, as John Rawls famously declared. It is equality. If there is a morally relevant difference between individuals A and B, then justice requires that A and B be treated differently. If there is no morally relevant difference between individuals A and B, then justice requires that A and B be treated alike. Of course, justice isn't the only moral consideration. Sometimes it is right, all things considered, to act unjustly; and sometimes it is wrong, all things considered, to act justly. Justice is only part of morality; it is not the whole.

Nothing I said in the preceding paragraph tells us how to act in particular situations. But that doesn't mean that what I said is useless. Justice is a formal (structural) constraint on action. It provides no substance (content). This is easily seen. One of Vince Lombardi's players (Jerry Kramer, I believe) said of Lombardi many years later that he treated his players equally—like dogs. That is to say, since there were no morally relevant differences among the players (in Lombardi's eyes), justice required equal treatment. But which treatment was unspecified. If justice is equality, then equal bad treatment is just treatment.

Why do we speak of "animals" in such phrases as "animal rights," "animal liberation," and "animal welfare"? This, it seems to me, obscures morally relevant differences—or what may well be morally relevant differences—among animals. Let me explain.

Take the class of animals. Divide it into two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes: humans and nonhumans. You and I, like Lassie and Mr Ed, are animals. You and I, however, are human animals; Lassie and Mr Ed are nonhuman animals. I'm not saying, yet, that this is a morally relevant difference. It's just a difference. All morally relevant differences are differences, but not all differences are morally relevant differences. To discriminate (to be a "discriminating person") is to be able to discern relevant differences (moral or otherwise) among individuals. This takes knowledge and training. It is a skill. A just person is a discriminating person.

Now focus on the class of nonhuman animals. Divide it into two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes: domesticated animals and nondomesticated animals. A white-tailed deer is a nondomesticated animal, even if it happens to be kept in captivity. Sophie and Shelbie, my canine companions, are domesticated animals, as are horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens.

Now focus on the class of domesticated animals. Divide it into two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes: companion animals and noncompanion animals. Sophie and Shelbie are in the former class. The cow whose flesh you eat (or used to eat) is in the latter class.

The distinctions I've drawn create four mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes of animal:
1. Human.
2. Nondomesticated, nonhuman.
3. Companion, domesticated, nonhuman.
4. Noncompanion, domesticated, nonhuman.
Let's use some shorthand:
1. Humans.
2. Wild animals.
3. Companion animals ("pets").
4. Resource animals.
I submit that there are morally relevant differences among these classes that justify different treatment. Please don't leap to conclusions. I'm not saying that the conventional ways of treating individuals in these various categories are justified. I'm saying that if we wish to do justice, we should at least inquire into the characteristics of these classes before deciding how to treat their members. If there are morally relevant differences, then justice requires that we take them into account.

I want this post to be suggestive (please post or send feedback!), so let me just say that in my opinion, the proper model for class 2 is foreigners. Wild animals are other nations. We should leave them alone. We must not harm them but have no positive duties to them. The proper model for class 3 is children. Our companion animals are childlike. They depend on us. We brought them into our lives, so we have duties not just to refrain from harming them but to provide for their needs. Individuals in class 4 are, in fact, treated like slaves. They are bred and kept for human purposes. This institution, like slavery, must be abolished.

In summary, we should leave wild animals alone (i.e., not harm them), provide for companion animals (just as we do for our children), and work to abolish institutions and practices that use animals as mere means to human ends (i.e., as resources). If this results in no more cows, pigs, sheep, or chickens, so be it; although I suspect that some of each species will be kept as companion animals the way dogs and cats are now. In other words, we shouldn't fear that if we abolish factory farms, we will render the species made use of by those farms extinct.

This way of looking at things—categorizing animals in this way—shows that the term "animal liberation" applies only to class 4. Wild animals and companion animals are not constrained (i.e., their liberty is not being limited), so they have nothing from which to be liberated. The term "animal welfare" applies to classes 3 and 4, at least until factory farms and other oppressive institutions are abolished, at which time it will apply only to class 3. The term "animal rights" applies to classes 2, 3, and 4, depending on whether the rights in question are negative (a right to be left alone) or positive (a right to be provided for), or both.