18 May 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 6

Anyone who has been reading this blog for more than a few days knows that I care deeply about nonhuman animals. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about humans. It means I don’t care only about humans. Care is not a zero-sum game. Yes, there are conflicts between humans and nonhumans; but there are conflicts between humans and humans. Caring for nonhuman animals means taking them into account in one’s deliberations. It means, at a minimum, not treating them as resources for human use and consumption.

It may puzzle some people that I’m conservative. Isn’t concern for animals a trendy liberal idea? How can this Burgess-Jackson guy be both a conservative and a respecter of animals? He must be confused. This must be a vestige of his liberal days.

I’m not confused. If you think conservatism is incompatible with concern or respect for animals, you don’t understand conservatism. Conservatism is a political morality. Like any political morality, it is concerned with the relation of individuals to the state. This explains the adjective “political.” Political morality is a subset of morality. Animals, of course, are not moral agents, so they’re not political agents, either. But this just means they fall outside the scope of political morality. It doesn’t mean they fall outside the scope of morality. There are moral patients as well as moral agents.

Ah, you say; but isn’t conservatism committed to conserving traditions, and isn’t using and consuming animals traditional? This goes too fast. Yes, conservatism, unlike liberalism, is committed to conserving traditions, but not just any old traditions. Some traditions are worth conserving; others are not. Slavery is traditional in Western culture, but no self-respecting conservative defends slavery. I maintain that using and consuming animals is analogous to slavery. Conservatives should reject both.

You might think this is cheating. “How convenient! You pick and choose traditions in accordance with their worthiness.” But this is no different from liberalism. The central value of liberalism is liberty, understood as the absence of constraint. Liberals aren’t anarchists; they believe there are moral limits on the exercise of individual liberty. As the old saying goes, your liberty stops at the tip of my nose. Liberty, to the liberal, is intrinsically good, but it’s not the only intrinsically good thing. Liberals aren’t absolutists about the value of liberty.

Nor are conservatives absolutists about the value of tradition. Liberals accord a presumption to liberty. Liberty, it might be said, is innocent until proven guilty. Conservatives accord a presumption to tradition. Tradition is innocent until proven guilty. Just as the presumption in favor of liberty can be rebutted or overridden, the presumption in favor of tradition can be rebutted or overridden. Bullfighting, fox hunting, meat-eating, and rodeos, like human chattel slavery, are traditional. This creates a presumption in their favor to the conservative. But I would argue that the presumption is rebutted or overridden in each case.

When is the presumption in favor of tradition rebutted or overridden? When the tradition inflicts harm on others. Conservatives are just as concerned with harm prevention as liberals are. Ah, you say, but animals can’t be harmed. Why not? To harm another is to set back his or her interests. Animals have interests. The main interest any sentient being has is not suffering. Animals also have an interest in life, just as humans do. Life is the precondition for all else of value to the individual: enjoyments, activities, experiences, and, in the case of humans, projects. Animals also have an interest in liberty. Confining animals sets this interest back. Humans harm animals in myriad ways.

Please don’t equate conservatism with the views actually held by conservatives. The views of a conservative fall into two categories: essential and accidental. The essential views are those that cannot be subtracted from conservatism without making it a different political morality. The accidental views are those that can be subtracted from conservatism without making it a different political morality. I maintain that lack of concern for animals is an accidental property of conservatism. In some cases, it derives from the religious beliefs of the conservative. But religion is not essential to conservatism. I’m an atheist. I’m also conservative. Logically speaking, I can be both.

Please be good to animals. First, do no harm to them. Primum non nocere. Second, do what you can to prevent harm to them. Third, if you have it in you, work to improve their lives. Let’s start a new tradition of compassion, concern, care, and respect for other species. That will be a tradition worth conserving.

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