08 April 2005

Human-Animal Conflicts

One of the malcontents who left The Conservative Philosopher several weeks ago commented, before leaving, on one of my posts about animals. In response to my claim that animals have moral status, he asked whether I wear a face mask to keep from ingesting—and therefore killing—insects. I can only speculate about the force of this question; but let me try. Is the writer suggesting that, since it’s impossible to avoid harming all animals, we have no duty to refrain from harming any of them? But that’s a flagrant non sequitur. It’s impossible to avoid harming all humans, yet nobody thinks this precludes our having a duty (a stringent duty, in fact) to refrain from harming them, or that we have no duty of reparation when we do harm them.

Think about all the steps we take to avoid harming humans, and to minimize the harm that’s unavoidable. There are rules of the road, replete with punishment for their violation. There are norms (legal and moral) against taking human life, violating bodily integrity, inflicting pain and suffering, and depriving individuals of liberty. That it’s hard to live a life free of harm to humans doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive mightily to do it. Why is the case any different with animals? Perhaps we haven’t worked as hard at avoiding and minimizing conflicts with animals because we haven’t taken them seriously. But that’s no reason to continue doing so! At one time, the interests of blacks and women were disregarded or discounted. That was an injustice. Respect for them as individuals meant taking them fully into account in our deliberations and in our actions. This is what justice requires with respect to animals.

When the writer says (or implies) that it would be too hard to avoid harming animals, he’s simply admitting that he doesn’t take them seriously. But that’s question-begging, for I’m arguing precisely the opposite: that they must—by virtue of their capacity to be harmed—be taken seriously. Animals have interests. Equal interests must be considered equally. To disregard or discount the interests of those we affect is an injustice to them.

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