26 July 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 16

Several readers have asked me in recent weeks whether there is anything morally objectionable about raising animals humanely and then killing them painlessly. If the animals are raised humanely and killed painlessly, it is said, there’s no suffering being inflicted. Yes, a happy animal’s life is ended, but if it is replaced by an equally happy animal, how could it be wrong? The amount of happiness in the world is the same. Actually, the amount of happiness is greater, since presumably humans who consume the animal’s flesh and make use of its other body parts are made happier by it.

This line of thought will appeal to certain theorists: those who believe that the sole aim of morality is to maximize overall happiness. But notice that hardly anyone thinks this way about humans. Would it be acceptable to humanely raise and painlessly kill humans if there were a use for their body parts, or if, all of a sudden, many humans acquired a taste for human flesh? I suspect you will say no. But why?

Isn’t it because humans aren’t interchangeable? Each human has an inherent worth or dignity. Each life is precious. If we didn’t think this, we would not mourn the loss of an infant, for in most cases the infant can be replaced in a matter of months via another pregnancy. While we care very much about human happiness, we don’t think that the moral value of humans is exhausted by it. Happiness is just one dimension of human value.

Why is it different for animals? Why do people think that animals, but not humans, are interchangeable, and therefore replaceable? Why do we reduce animals to their happiness, such that, if one happy animal is replaced by an equally happy animal, nothing morally significant has been lost? I submit that this is irrational. Just as each human life is precious and irreplaceable, so is each animal life. That animals can’t protest their treatment as happiness-receptacles is morally irrelevant. Babies can’t protest. The severely retarded can’t protest. The senile can’t protest. You can be sure that if animals could protest, they would.

There needs to be a revolution in our thinking about animals. They are no more replaceable than humans are. Unless you are indifferent about replacing one of your children with an equally happy child, you should not be indifferent about replacing a cow or a pig with an equally happy cow or pig. It may be convenient to apply consequentialist reasoning to animals and deontological reasoning to humans, but there is no warrant for it. It’s as arbitrary as applying consequentialist reasoning to other races and deontological reasoning to one’s own race.

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