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Some Thoughts About Animals

There's an interesting, albeit somewhat disjointed (because it's written by a reporter surveying others' opinions rather than a single person making a sustained argument) article on animal rights in the Financial Times. I have a number of disjointed points to make that it prompted.

The article opens with a commonly used analogy: could super-intelligent and super-powerful aliens treat humans the way we treat animals? I think a key point when considering analogies like this is the difference between absolute levels of intelligence and power (or whatever characteristic makes humans superior to animals), and relative ones. Aliens-versus-humans is only an analogy to humans-versus-animals if humans' treatment of animals is based on relative superiority. I think relative superiority arguments, while popular, are very weak, as it seems difficult to prevent them from deteriorating into might-makes-right. Absolute levels of various characteristics, on the other hand, make more sense as a basis for differentiation. Peter Singer makes the point:

You stop, Singer said, at the point where you have included all beings that have some sort of conscious awareness of what is happening to them. A tree would be outside that boundary, whereas a dog or a cat would fall within it. But that did not mean the dog or the cat should have the right to vote or the right to free speech, any more than men needed the right to an abortion. The rights they needed were those that were relevant to them, such as the right not to be subjected to unnecessary suffering.

The article also touches on the common question of whether a being can have rights (or at least be owed some form of moral consideration) if it can't exercise moral duties. A common anti-animal rights argument is to assert that animals can perform no moral duties, so therefore they are owed no rights. Animal rights defenders reply that you can have rights without being able to perform duties. I think the animal rights defenders are correct on the philosophical question of the rights-duties coupling, but I wonder why both sides are so quick to assume that all animals are incapable of performing moral duties. Certainly their ability to make fine and complex moral judgments is less than that of a typical human, and if you go far enough away from humans (e.g. oysters) morality seems nonexistent. But companion animals clearly are able to excercise a degree of morality -- they learn some basic principles of right and wrong, and pet owners clearly interact with them in a moral fashion. And in the wild, many animals exercise what seems to be a clear form of moral structure (e.g. obeying pecking orders). Perhaps you could chalk it all up to a complex combination of amoral instinct and self-interest -- but then how would you avoid applying the same sort of reductionist explanation to human morality too?

A final note is the question of where breeding fits in. The author has a tendency to list selective breeding in among a litany of the other things we do to animals, like eating them or dressing them in funny clothes for our amusement. But I think there's more work to be done to clarify what exactly is wrong about animal breeding. There are certainly a lot of collateral wrongs that can be done in the process of breeding animals -- if the breeder keeps them in poor conditions, if he forces two animals to mate when they'd rather not, or if the resulting phenotypes are detrimental to the offspring (e.g. some specialized dog breeds have a lot of joint problems or breathing difficulties). The implication in the article, however, is that interference in the "natural" course of breeding is itself wrong, and that an individual is harmed if his or her genome is the product of conscious selection by another individual.

I find this type of alleged harm difficult to accept, in part because it would seem to condemn all breeding other than giant blind orgies. After all, the genetic makeup of every individual who is currently living was the product of a choice by at least one of their biological parents as to which combination of genes should come together. You may say that your parents didn't have any explicit eugenic intentions when they chose each other for partners. But considerations of intent only affect the culpability of the harm-causer, not the exitence of a harm (I'm just as dead if you shoot me by accident or on purpose). And it's strange to say that we have some sort of fundamental interest in certain things being unintended byproducts -- normally morality requires that we think about our actions and their consequences, not that we deliberately ignore some set of important consequences.


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