31 January 2005

Conservatism and Animal Rights

I’m a conservative. I’m also a proponent of animal rights. I won’t say I’m a proponent of animal rights because I’m a conservative, the way Peter Singer says he’s a vegetarian because he’s a utilitarian, because that would imply a logical connection between them. I don’t think there’s any logical connection between conservatism and animal rights, or indeed between any political morality and animal rights. But they’re not incompatible, either. One can be a conservative and a proponent of animal rights or a conservative and an opponent of animal rights. That there are more of the latter than of the former is an accident.

Let me explain what I mean by “proponent of animal rights.” Animals matter. Morally. They have intrinsic moral significance, just like human beings (but unlike plants). Immanuel Kant famously denied that animals have intrinsic moral significance. If it’s wrong to treat animals in certain ways, he held, it’s not because the animal is wronged but because some human being who takes an interest in the animal is wronged. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham say that it’s not rational agency that confers moral status on a being; it’s the capacity to suffer, and animals have the capacity to suffer.

I’m not a utilitarian, but I’m not a Kantian, either. I’m a nonKantian deontologist who believes that it’s wrong to harm others. Animals can be harmed. Their lives are valuable to them in the same way that your life is valuable to you. Why is it wrong for me to kill you? I suspect you will say that my killing you deprives you of your future, which contains enjoyments, experiences, projects, and activities. Animals such as dogs, cows, pigs, and chickens are capable of enjoyments, experiences, and activities, too, although perhaps not of having projects. If animals can suffer the same sorts of loss that you can, then if that loss makes it wrong to kill you, why doesn’t it make it wrong to kill an animal?

Why should my conservatism be thought to deny any of this? It might be said that conservatism is committed to conserving traditions, and that it’s traditional to treat animals as resources for human use. But no conservative endorses all tradition. Slavery is traditional. No conservative defends slavery. There must be a criterion for distinguishing those traditions that are worth preserving and those that are not. I suggest that the criterion involves harm to others. Slavery harmed slaves. That is why it need not and should not be conserved. But using animals for food and other purposes (entertainment, for example) harms them. That it’s traditional to so use them is therefore irrelevant. Bad traditions should be abolished, not conserved.

I’ve only sketched my argument. The main point of this post is that there is no logical incompatibility between being a conservative and being a proponent of animal rights. If there is, then I’m horribly confused.

30 January 2005

Cows with Guns

My friend Peg Kaplan sent a link to this. Peg should not be assumed to agree with its contents.

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Our food habits could not be more dysfunctional. Food makers lobbying to edit national dietary standards is the tip of the iceberg.

Deciding what we grow and eat is now answered by large agribusinesses here and overseas, farm subsidies, chemical companies, genetic engineers and lobbyists.

The quickest change comes from our buying dollars.

Melanie Cheng
San Francisco, Jan. 26, 2005

26 January 2005

Gratification #27

Dogs. Yes, dogs. I love dogs. They are loyal to a fault; they are playful and enthusiastic; their love for their human companions is unbounded and unconditional; they hold no grudges; they are patient; they appreciate little favors (as well as big ones); and they don’t care whether you’re a success or a failure in your work or in your love life—as long as you come home to them. Schopenhauer said that he would not want to live in a world without dogs. Neither would I. I have learned as much from my canine companions as I have from certain philosophers I could name. They teach me (by example); they inspire me; they entertain me; they fulfill me.

25 January 2005

Reasons for Vegetarianism

If you care about any of the following, you should abstain from meat:
• animals
• the natural environment
• your health
• humans
That’s right, humans. See here.

Addendum: Philosophers often speak of overdetermination and underdetermination. Theory, they say, is underdetermined (by data). Vegetarianism is overdetermined. There are multiple sufficient reasons to abstain from meat.

24 January 2005


I don’t know where the time went, but it’s been 12 years since I brought two-month-old Sophie to my house in Fort Worth. She was born in a horse barn in Red Oak, Texas. I’ve watched Sophie go from a rampaging puppy to a rambunctious middle-aged dog to an old girl who sleeps a lot, walks more slowly, and doesn’t hear as well. But one thing hasn’t changed: my love for her. We have been constant companions for a dozen years, with several more to go.

22 January 2005

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Re "Mad Cow Across the Border" (editorial, some editions, Jan. 19):

Nearly 190,000 animals have been tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy since June 2004 as part of an intensive Department of Agriculture surveillance program. None have tested positive. Even if additional cases of B.S.E. are discovered in the United States, scientists agree that B.S.E. is not a public health risk.

At least 82 percent of the cattle harvested in the United States are less than 30 months old. Current science says that B.S.E. develops only in cattle older than 30 months. The testing program targets these cattle. Testing all cattle would be like testing children for Alzheimer's disease. It is just not necessary.

As a rancher, a mother and a grandmother, I am confident in the safety of the beef I serve to my own family and to others around the nation.

Jan Lyons
President, National Cattlemen's Beef Association
Manhattan, Kan., Jan. 20, 2005

19 January 2005


Here is the Wikipedia entry on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Note that its neutrality is disputed. I haven't read the whole entry, but there are two possibilities. Either PETA supporters have made the entry too favorable to the organization or PETA opponents have made it too unfavorable. Or both. That the entry is disputed shows that animal rights remains a controversial topic in our society. This is not necessarily bad. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said that all great movements go through three stages: ridicule, discussion, and adoption. We're past the ridicule stage and into the discussion stage. Whether we get to the adoption stage remains to be seen. I hope we do. I'm working to increase the chance that we do.

Whole Foods Market

Ryan Gendron sent a link to this interview with John Mackey, who is the founder and chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market. Thanks, Ryan!

18 January 2005

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Yes, processed-food manufacturers were issued a reprieve on trans fats from the Agriculture Department's dietary guidelines. But it bears mentioning that the meat and dairy industries also have a history of being shielded from scrutiny.

There is no dietary requirement for cholesterol whatsoever, and too much of it in our blood becomes a risk factor for deadly disease. Yet the guidelines give the allowance of 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day, simply so people may eat foods of animal origin, the only foods that actually contain cholesterol. (Plants are free of cholesterol, and in fact supply phytosterols, which are good for human health.)

Interestingly, 300 milligrams don't go very far. A person handily uses up his or her entire U.S.D.A.-designated daily quota for cholesterol after consuming two small eggs. How many would believe that the government actually advises people to completely curtail meat and dairy intake after that limit has been reached?

Pamela Rice
New York, Jan. 13, 2005
The writer is the author of a book about vegetarianism.

17 January 2005

Categorizing Animals

Some animals are wild and some domesticated. Some domesticated animals are used as resources for human ends and some are cared for as family members. I believe our moral obligations differ depending on which category a particular animal belongs to. This is not ad hoc. I also believe that our moral obligations to humans differ depending on which category they belong to. I have obligations to my children, for example, that I have to no other child. I have obligations to Americans that I have to no other nationality. Here are the three categories:
1. Wild animals. Wild animals should be left alone. We should not hunt them, trap them, capture them for zoos or circuses, or displace them. Nor should we intervene to prevent predation. Saving one animal from another only starves the other. The relevant principle here is nonmaleficence (do no harm).

2. Domesticated resource animals. Institutions such as factory farms, which treat animals as resources for human consumption, should be abolished. We should stop breeding cows, pigs, and chickens for their meat, eggs, hides, and other materials. The relevant principle here is nonmaleficence (do no harm).

3. Companions. Domesticated animals that we take into our homes, such as dogs and cats, have the status of children or friends. We have obligations not only to refrain from harming them (as we do to all animals), but to provide for their needs. The relevant principles here are nonmaleficence (do no harm) and beneficence (do good).
Consequentialists deny the existence of special responsibilities. They say that any partiality toward those near and dear to one is impermissible. They also deny the moral significance of the distinction between harming and not preventing harm. If I allow you to die, they say, I am a murderer, even if I had nothing to do with your predicament. Many of us think that the failure to make these distinctions counts against consequentialism. For more on this subject, see my essay “Doing Right by Our Animal Companions,” a link to which appears on the left side of this blog.

16 January 2005

Save Dogs

Here is a heartwarming new blog.

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Re "A 9,000-Pound Fish Out of Water, Alone in Alaska Since 2002" (Anchorage Journal, Jan. 9):

Friends of Maggie, an Anchorage citizens' group, has worked to persuade the Alaska Zoo to relocate its solitary female African elephant, Maggie, to a warm climate and the company of other elephants.

Four superb institutions are willing and able to give Maggie a spacious home with other female African elephants in a mild climate.

Female elephants are one of the most socially needy and complex land mammals on the planet. Outside captivity, they never live alone, and never live in the sub-Arctic.

Maggie could live 40 more years. Surely she deserves a better future than 40 years on a treadmill in a cement barn in Alaska.

Penelope Wells
Exec. Dir., Friends of Maggie
Anchorage, Jan. 10, 2005

13 January 2005

Our Fellow Animals

Side A of this site contains pleasant images. Side B contains disturbing images.

12 January 2005

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on the Philosopher's Product

I believe that the vegetarians, with their prescription to eat less and more simply, are of more use than all the new moral systems taken together: a little exaggeration here is of no importance. There is no doubt that the future educators of mankind will also prescribe a stricter diet. One hopes to make modern men healthy by means of air, sun, habitation, travel, etc.—including medical stimuli and toxins. But nothing which would be difficult for man seems to be ordered any longer. The maxim seems to be: be healthy and ill in an agreeable and comfortable manner. Yet it is just this incessant lack of moderation in small matters, this lack of self-discipline, which finally becomes evident as universal haste and impotentia.

[S]o long as philosophers fail to muster the courage to seek a totally transformed regimen and to exhibit it by their own example, then they are of no consequence.

The philosopher's product is his life (which occupies the most important position, before his works). His life is his work of art, and every work of art is first turned toward the artist and then toward other men.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, "Philosophy in Hard Times," chap. 5 in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990 (1979)], 99-123, at 106, 107, and 109 [notes written in 1873] [italics in original; footnotes omitted])


One of my readers, Peg Kaplan, asked what “demi-vegetarian” means. Good question, Peg! I’ll be happy to explain. I got the term from R. M. Hare, who used it in the title of an essay: “Why I Am Only a Demi-Vegetarian,” chap. 15 in his Essays on Bioethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 219-35. According to Hare (who says he did not invent the term), a demi-vegetarian is “someone who, while not being a full vegetarian, let alone vegan, eats little meat, and is careful what kinds of meat he (or she) eats” (pages 224-5). Hare wrote that he and his wife ate little or no meat at home (except when hosting guests whom they knew—or guessed—would not like a vegetarian meal) and occasionally ate meat in restaurants when there was “no obvious alternative” (page 225).

The prefix “demi” means half, or, in this context, imperfect. So a demi-vegetarian is someone who is imperfectly vegetarian. We might say “almost vegetarian.” As in the case of vegetarianism proper, the regimen can be for dietary or moral reasons, or both.

Now to my own diet. I learned when I was 15 years old that I was allergic to dairy products. Since then (1972), I’ve consumed no milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, or yogurt. I gave up red meat (beef, pork, lamb, venison, &c) in 1981, nearly a quarter of a century ago. That left only turkey, chicken, fish, and eggs in my diet, as far as animal products go. I gave up turkey in 1982, leaving chicken, fish, and eggs. That’s where it stood for many years. Finally, a couple of years ago, I gave up chicken, although if something I buy (such as ramen) is made with chicken stock, I will eat it. Also two years ago, I began buying eggs from free-roaming hens. So, for about two years, the only animal products I’ve consumed are fish (sardines, for example, but also frozen fish) and free-range eggs. It would be dishonest of me to call myself a vegetarian, and I never have, at least without immediately qualifying what I mean. I’m almost a vegetarian. I’m a demi-vegetarian.

11 January 2005

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

In "Live Free and Die" (Op-Ed, Jan. 4), Judy Blunt portrays the issue of what to do about overpopulation and starvation of wild horses to benefit those who stand to profit from their slaughter.

Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, added language into last year's spending bill allowing certain horses to be auctioned to the highest bidder, which may be a slaughterhouse. This lifted more than 30 years of protection for our wild herds.

Immunocontraception has been successful in controlling the populations of these animals. They should be moved to sanctuaries or protected areas where their numbers can be humanely controlled. Slaughter should never be an option.

The majority of Americans oppose the slaughter of horses and their export abroad for human consumption. It goes against our culture and has been illegal in California since 1998.

Wild horses and burros were being protected because the American people demanded it. Perhaps Representative John E. Sweeney of New York, who heads the Congressional Horse Caucus, will lead the way to repeal Senator Burns's disastrous legislation.

Susan Wagner
President, Equine Advocates
Chatham, N.Y., Jan. 4, 2005

09 January 2005

Peter Singer’s Influence

It’s been 30 years since Animal Liberation was published. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read about its influence, which is said to be significant. But where’s the evidence for this? Has anyone done a study? And how much influence is a lot of influence? Is it influential as philosophy books go, as books about animals go, as books about animal ethics go, or as books in general go? And how much of the book’s influence is due to its argumentation, as opposed to the emotional wallop packed by its images and descriptions of how animals are used in laboratories and on factory farms? If all or most of the book’s influence is due to emotional factors, then neither Singer nor his philosophical colleagues can take pride in the fact that it was written by a philosopher; for another book that had the same images and descriptions—but not the arguments—would have had the same effect.

Philosophers are usually careful in making factual claims, since they have no factual expertise, but for some reason (self-interest?) they take liberties when it comes to making claims about the influence of this or that philosophical work. How influential has John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice been, either popularly or professionally? Nobody knows! We need a society or a discipline that measures such things by strict empirical standards—and publishes the results. By the way, I’m not suggesting that the worth of a philosophical work (or any other scholarly work) lies solely, or even largely, in its impact on nonphilosophers. But when self-serving claims are made that philosophical works such as Animal Liberation have had significant extraphilosophical influence, I’m skeptical. Let’s see the evidence.

08 January 2005

From the Mailbag

Hi there

Your blog is exactly what I need right now and I hope you—or someone—can help me with an ethical dilemma regarding my one-year-old dog.

I am in a position of having to chose one life over another. My dog has recently killed some of my ducks and it seems that this may be next to impossible to switch off in him. Some of the training/rehabilitating already taken place seemed extremely effective until he ate another one, in spite of close supervision. I have had indications that he could go after our cats in a predatory way.

The dilemma is multifold. First—I have been in discussion with trainers all over the world (literally—I love this dog). The general consensus is that at best, I can hopefully "manage" the behaviour but the likelihood is that if he has the opportunity (or can take the opportunity) he will kill again. However, he is a perfect dog in most other respects. So, what I am wondering is, what steps do I need to take in order to arrive at an ethical decision?

I did take some ethics, but right now, I could use a bit of back up!



07 January 2005

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Judy Blunt takes aim not only at free-roaming horses and burros but also at the defenders of wild horses, whose positions she caricatures ("Live Free and Die," Op-Ed, Jan. 4).

It is fatuous to argue that 30,000 wild horses roaming the West are degrading the region's arid lands when there are more than four million livestock grazing on those same lands.

Her claim that livestock grazing is "under strict regulations" is laughable.

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States have advocated for fewer roundups of horses and helped develop a contraceptive vaccine as a centerpiece of an active, nonlethal management strategy.

Where population reductions are well justified, nonlethal strategies like contraception should take the place of costly roundups, which are now just an antecedent to the slaughter of horses for export to foreign markets for human consumption.

Wayne Pacelle
President and Chief Executive
Humane Society of the U.S.
Washington, Jan. 4, 2005

06 January 2005

Peter Singer

I found this story about Peter Singer while surfing the Internet. Like most leftists, he can't believe that an intelligent person can be religious. This shows how detached he is from reality. Religion has nothing to do with intelligence. It has everything to do with finding meaning in life.

Addendum: Notice how Singer keeps saying that such-and-such an act is not "inherently" or "intrinsically" wrong. This implies that he thinks some acts are intrinsically wrong, i.e., wrong in themselves, because of the kinds of act they are. He doesn't. Singer is a consequentialist. That an act is of a certain type, e.g., homicide, torture, incest, bestiality, adultery, lying, or breaking a promise, is morally irrelevant to him. The only thing that matters, to a consequentialist, is an act's consequences. If an act of homicide or torture brings about the best overall consequences (which, logically, it could), it is right. If an act of keeping a promise or telling the truth doesn't bring about the best overall consequences, it is wrong. What Princeton University needs in order to counter Singer's teaching is not a religious ethicist, as Marvin Olasky suggests, but a deontologist, someone for whom the type of act one performs is morally relevant. Not all religious ethicists are deontologists and not all deontologists are religious.

By the way, I find Singer's recourse to consent interesting. Consent is a deontological concept. It is linked to rights-possession, which Singer, qua consequentialist, disavows. If a particular act brings about the best overall consequences, it is irrelevant that not everyone affected by the act consents to it. Put differently, if consent has moral significance, then people cannot be used as mere means to collective ends as Singer wishes. As this shows, Singer is not only a bad philosopher; he's a bad consequentialist. Sometimes he appears not to understand his own theory.

05 January 2005

Ambrose Bierce

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

(Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, c. 1911)

03 January 2005

A Snippet of Dialogue

Arthur: Sentience—the capacity to suffer—marks the limit of moral considerability. If a being is sentient, its suffering must be taken into account in our deliberations. Nonsentient beings such as rocks and plants have no interests, so there is nothing to be taken into account.

Betty: What about insects and oysters? Are they sentient?

Arthur: If they are, their suffering must be taken into account. If not, not.

Betty: But are they sentient?

Arthur: That’s a factual question about which reasonable people can differ. Don’t confuse the category with its members. Just because it’s not clear whether a particular being goes in the sentient category doesn’t mean (1) that the category itself is unclear or (2) that there is no difference, after all, between being sentient and being nonsentient. Compare baldness. Everyone, logically speaking, is either bald or nonbald, but there are individuals who are not easily classified. That there are hard cases doesn’t entail that there are no easy cases. That a concept is not perfectly clear doesn’t entail that it’s perfectly unclear. Some people are clearly bald. Some people are clearly nonbald. Some people are neither clearly bald nor clearly nonbald.

Betty: But how can you use a category or concept—sentience—if it doesn’t allow all individuals to be easily classified?

Arthur: Easily. The animals we use as mere means to our ends—cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, rats, monkeys—are clearly sentient. They’re not borderline cases. Why should the fact that there are other animals of doubtful sentience, such as oysters or insects, obscure this fact from us? Is a concept useful only if it is perfectly clear, i.e., only if it has no degree of vagueness? Most ordinary concepts are vague to some extent, but they remain useful to us. The concept of an automobile is useful, but there are hard cases of automobiles where we’re not sure whether to say, “Yes, it’s an automobile” or “No, it’s not an automobile.”

Betty: My head hurts. Good night.

Arthur: Good night.

02 January 2005

Singer on Posner on Catastrophe

Peter Singer and Richard Posner are two of our most prominent public intellectuals. Posner has a real job (federal appellate judge) that keeps him grounded, whereas Singer, a philosopher, takes flights of intellectual fancy. Posner is a pragmatist. Singer is a consequentialist. Both can (and do) claim John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) as a forebear: Posner for Mill's classical liberalism (see On Liberty [1859]) and Singer for Mill's utilitarianism (see Utilitarianism [1861]). (This, better than anything, shows the tension in Mill's thought.) Here is Singer's review of Posner's latest book: Catastrophe: Risk and Response. (Thanks to Bob Hessen for letting me know that the review was going to appear, or else I might not have found it.) By the way, if you're interested in the moral status of animals, as you should be, you will enjoy this dialogue between Singer and Posner.