09 December 2003

Received "Wisdom" About Animals

This is a reply to Nathan's immediately preceding (and interesting) post. The reason there is not a corpus of philosophical work defending the view that animals are objects is that this has been the received view. It still is in most quarters. To many people, it's common sense (in modern parlance, a no-brainer) that animals exist for human use and enjoyment.

There are of course philosophical defenses of animal objecthood. See Descartes and Kant. But even these are un(der)developed. Teachers of animal ethics should explain to their students that the "debate" is between so-called common sense and those who would revise common sense. There's a kind of default position that must be challenged or called into question. Compare skepticism in epistemology. Half the battle is getting dogmatists to see that their "knowledge" is questionable.

There's also the Christian position on animals, which is about as well worked-out as any philosophical view. Most Christians believe that their religion confers object status on animals. Any good that is done in their behalf is supererogatory. This is highly debatable, as some thoughtful Christians have shown. Arguably, Christianity confers moral status on animals and requires such things as vegetarianism. But Christians must be persuaded of this.

Incidentally, this shows that defending animals requires versatility and patience. To persuade a Christian, one must begin with Christian premises. To persuade a Marxist, one must begin with Marxist premises. To persuade a contractarian, one must begin with contractarian premises. There are as many arguments to be made as there are religions, ideologies, and moral theories.