03 May 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 4

Some people (including readers of my blogs) appear to think that in our dealings with animals, it’s enough to refrain from making them suffer. This explains why people think it’s acceptable to raise animals for food, provided they are not made to suffer along the way and provided they are killed painlessly. Some would insist, further, that any animal put to death be replaced by an equally happy animal, thus keeping the total happiness of the world the same.

We don’t think this way about humans. Suppose I had a taste for human flesh. Would it be acceptable for me to raise happy humans, the way Smallholder raises happy calves (see here), and then kill them painlessly? What’s the difference? Why the double standard? Why do we think like consequentialists with respect to animals but insist on deontology for humans? Why do we view animals, but not humans, as interchangeable and (therefore) replaceable?

Think about why it’s wrong to kill humans. (Here I draw on Don Marquis’s essay on abortion, from which I have learned much.) To kill a human is to deprive him or her of a future that contains activities, enjoyments, projects, and experiences. Life is the precondition for these things. Without it, they cannot exist. Even a painless killing deprives a human of these valued things.

But animals have futures that contain activities, enjoyments, and experiences, although perhaps not projects in the strict sense. Their lives are the preconditions for these things. Without their lives, these things cannot exist. Even a painless killing deprives an animal of these valued things.

The cases are parallel. You might object that humans and animals are different. Of course they’re different. But are the differences morally relevant? Humans differ among themselves, but not all the differences are morally relevant. We don’t let skin color, for example, affect one’s rights. Why is species membership morally relevant? How could it be, since it’s a biological concept? Species is no more relevant than race is, and you don’t think race is relevant.

Your life is the most important thing you have, since it’s the foundation on which everything else you value is built. This is as true for cows, pigs, and chickens as it is for you. What makes it wrong for someone to kill you is that it deprives you of these valued activities and experiences. That’s precisely why it’s wrong to kill animals. Apply the same standard to both cases. Be a consequentialist through and through, like Peter Singer, or be a deontologist through and through, like me. Don’t be a consequentialist with respect to animals and a deontologist with respect to humans. That’s irrational and self-serving.

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