October 22, 2009

Animal Studies

Years and years ago, my brother was a vegetarian. Because I was an immature student I would tell him that he was participating in the mass murder of plants. It is not a particularly subtle or good argument against vegetarianism but it does raise what I think is a legitimate question about the reasons why we accord moral personality to some things and not others. We do so on the basis of the reactions whereby the other agent demonstrates to us a feeling that we identify with and empathise with. If I hit you, your reaction reminds me of what it is to be hit. If I shoot a pig, its squeel reminds me of what it is to be shot. Even those who advocate that we should give plants rights use this argument by suggesting that plants scream as their stalks are cut. This drives me onto a point of worry in terms of what is now called Animal Studies.

Animal Studies is a new field- spanning all the humanities. It looks at animals as interesting units. So a historian might write about the fate of dogs and horses in world war one as they were used for military reasons- a philosopher might consider the rights of animals and a literature theorist the division between humans and animals in literature. Reading an article in Chronicle which serves as an introduction to the field, despite the fact that as one commenter says it does not mention the leading philosopher of animal rights Peter Singer, something struck me. The problem with according animals rights or moral personality is not a problem about whether they should have rights or personality- ie it is not a problem about whether human life is preferable to animal life. Rather it is a distinct problem about the fact that the mind of an animal is unknowable: I presume to guess that you think similarly to me: so we would both abhore slavery even if it came with unlimited sufficiency- but I cannot do so with a pig.

This affects our moral judgements and our ability to judge for animals about what they would prefer in a given situation. Take the situation of a pig being fattened for slaughter. All human beings that I know would say that they object to that: they can see that the pleasure of more food and comfortable surroundings is being exchanged for an uncertain, painful and final future. We discount present happiness into the future: we do so with sadness too- studying for exams is no fun, but students do it to acheive a degree or qualification that will they hope benefit them. Are the same calculations made by pigs though? How do we know whether a pig would prefer to have an endless supply of food in exchange for a shortened life? The answer is that we do not know whether a pig would prefer that because we do not know what kind of idea of the future the pig has. We could imagine that the pig is a human being: but that seems to me to unwrite the whole idea of the animal having rights, the fundemental right is the right to define what is good for me.

There are two reasons why animal feelings are inaccessible to me whereas human feelings are not so inaccessible. The first is the obvious: I am a human so are you. Therefore when you and I come to the same situation we are likely to react in the same way. Despite our greater simularity this begs the same question though as my pig example- how do I know that I am not defining through my sympathy your good, how do I know that my morality is not moral but paternalistic. That is where the second key distinction comes in, language. You can tell me what you prefer in a given situation- you can inform me of what you see as the good and I can adjust my perceptions in response. Language is not a perfect tool of communication but it beats a grunt. The pig cannot tell me what it wants and therefore how can I presume to know what it wants- in that sense is it meaningless to talk about animal desires and animal wants, and therefore the rights to acheive them?

I don't say this to dismiss the whole idea of animal rights- others will know more and think more about this than me and may have answered these questions. But that is the central issue to me: defining animal rights means defining what is good for an animal and ultimately the internal consciousness of an animal is an undiscovered country to me. Its subjective impression of what it wants is something I do not know and therefore I cannot know if it would prefer say, a short life of abundant plenty followed by death or a longer life of scarcity but without the prospect of the farmer's knife. I know what I would prefer, but I don't think its my right to impose my preference on a pig, a chicken or anything else for that matter.


Finneglot said...

Every right is in some way an expression of might. Our fellow mammalians whom we confine and butcher are hopeless to change their status by themselves. And they surely don't.

Eleutheromania is an ideological construct built by the human mind, a mind that firmly believes merely existing is not enough - one must achieve, one must be free to do whatever he pleases under the rule of law and moral. It has modern roots this insatiable thirst for some freedoms - this is not the natural human condition, we are happy to serve and bow to our mighty overlords as long they provide and protect.

Our enslaved mammalians fellows didn't buy into our mania for freedom. In fact, they seem incapable of understanding its underlying philosophy. They are happy, if happiness can be properly applied to a cow, to exist. Surely, their brains concoct some unusual ideas and different individuals have different temperaments and inclinations, but the general rule is: they don't truly mind being provided and protected even if their final reward is to become meat or something equally delicious.

What does the animal, including us, seeks in life? To grow, to eat, to reproduce and, oh the horror, to die. We humans and some other animals such as gorillas and chimpanzees, are unique in the sense we are aware of ourselves. This means we are aware of our inevitable death. Other animals aren't. The fact they are being provided with their needs and offered protection, just to be slaughtered in the end, means nothing to them. They can't possibly understand the whole process means their death; only at the bitter end the smell of blood raises alarm. In this last moment of terror, their instinct of survival kicks in and makes their death a little stressful. Shameful thing, but this could have happened in the wild or in the field. Also, killing methods are done to be as quick and painless as possible, in some way easing our sensibilities.

How that is immoral or sad? The whole argument boils down to the belief that killing a cuddly being is wrong. You can't possibly kill that cutesy lil' cow, can you? It is some sort of empathy on steroids. Well, shame, our ancestor killed quite a lot of game to bring us to this current state of lamentation over the death a chicken. That's how nature works, we must kill to survive. Denying that is denying life itself and I can't see how that is productive.

Of course, as a personal choice vegetarianism can be reasonable as long it doesn't become a crusade against natural meat-eating habits. Essentially, it is a private choice very much like religion. You stick with the one you are most comfortable with and that isn't a rational decision but it is reasonable in the sense it makes you feel better.

Surely, there are some rational reasons for reducing meat intake, but none are related to empathic feelings. Health related reasons is one; environmental concern is another, as livestock industry is unsustainable right now.

So far, I have covered only the vegetarian side of the story. There is also the whole animal rights side, which is a completely different beast.

Finneglot said...

Animal rights on the broad scope is a more complicated issue. There are endless uses of non-human animals in society, from being company to children to providing luxury furs, from locomotion to laboratory experimentation. All these uses have economic impact and each one of them bring different issues to the table.

Take fur, for the beginning. The fur industry is probably the biggest receiver of hate of all others. Indeed, contrary to livestock who were selected during the ages to become tame and live in large gatherings, minxes, foxes and other furry beings weren't. Their condition is often deplorable and very stressful conditions are set upon them from the date of birth to the date of death. These animals aren't being properly provided and protected. The emperor is therefore immoral and lost his tianming. Unless proper rules are instituted to redress these wrongs, fur industry cannot create or maintain sympathies.

Now we go about animal companionship. It seems fairly obvious cats and dogs are naturally bound to our presence. They have been selected during the years to become partners and co-inhabitants of our homes. Their existence and ours is now very intertwined and seems pointless to argue they should be set free. But people aren't satisfied with them, oh no, we must have exotic pets. Iguanas, parrots, wolves and whatnot. This fuels a huge traffic industry which is probably the most odious in the world - and also the most unknown. Birds are taken from their natural habitat and are transported in awful ways towards major traffic hubs where they are shipped to developed countries. Almost 90% die. This is a huge environmental catastrophe and a waste of resources. This is not part of the provide and protect maxim. When they arrive at their final destination, the birds may find themselves in environments they were not adapted to and in the hands of inexperienced people. Also, you cannot possibly provide for a wild species unless you mimic its habitat and we quite know that's not viable in many circumstances. The conclusion is: if one can't follow the rule of 'provide and protect' one shouldn't think about having non-human animals as companions.

Another hot topic is the scientific use of animals, sometimes human animals. We all know that science is important and that it must use models to understand how life works. Sometimes the beings used are cutesy-cute and it is an awful shame to have them suffer many distressing experiments. Yet, experiment design is done under a strict set of rules for animal handling and anesthetics are used whenever necessary. Animals are usually well-treated and are provided and protected. Scientists are also conscious of treating their subjects in the best possible way, even if they are little bastards. In the end, the only reason to support animal experimentation is because science is absolutely fundamental to our society's advancement. A price must be payed in animal discomfort and they sure don't like being handled - at all.

Finally, the last topic I'm taking is the one of animal labour - the pull of carts by oxes, the horseback riding etc. It is fairly clear all these animals have been tamed long time ago. They have also been selected to yield better beasts of burden. The stress they must muster during heavy physical activities is in some ways the same humans do in many regions of the world. Not very comfortable, yes, but one gets used to it. Besides, these animals are usually well-provided as they are the economic pillars of the families/individuals they serve.

All in all, I cannot possibly conclude animals have rights under some circumstances and not in others. Non-human animals have no rights whatsoever. What they have is sympathy and concessions from some human groups. Concessions are based on our natural empathy for them, meaning we will treat them in the best possible way while extracting the products we need. Crusades against the ban of animal slavery are a fool's errand: we need them, they are content to live under us in exchange for provision and protection.

Gracchi said...

Finneglot- you have written a much broader piece than the piece it responds to and some of your argumetns are interesting. I am not sure I share your conviction that the only description of right is as might. I think the issue of what a right is is perhaps for another time and a bigger essay.

What I agree with you on is the difficulty of knowing what an animal's point of view is and of harmonising that to the sympathies of humans. The most intelligent animals are not the most cute. Furthermore it is not neccessarily true that animals see time and self in the way that we do- that is something I do not pretend expertise on but it strikes me as a great limitation on what we think about animals and their good.

Finneglot said...

Indeed Gracchi. We do not have yet the insight into other species minds, but one thing we surely share is the aversion of pain and discomfort. It would be great if in our efforts to extract animal products we could minimize both as much as possible - it would surely make the whole process less painful for us too. This is something most people can agree with.

The contentious side is the one that deals with the immorality of containment and other aspects of animal psychology. It is eerily similar to discussions about the (im)morality of slavery during mid-eighteenth century. Should humans (animals) be allowed freedom from captivity? Under which circumstances? Is this done for their own good or for our conscience's sake? True, human beings are so diverse that perhaps a significant portion of the slaves which lived under mild to good conditions probably didn't see the end of captivity as a brilliant idea (Nehemiah Adams, 1854). Yet, the ones living under stressful or harsh masters probably rejoiced their new freedom (Haiti). Now, isn't this a variation of "provide and protect" law? What makes humans different from other animals in this aspect is their elaborate conscious process of justifying their natural choices and also prominent individual variations (not all slaves can endure slavery). Notwithstanding, it is somewhat easier to understand members of our own species and therefore, to empathize with them (we could be the enslaved ones, after all).

If we use the same standards of human captivity to other animals captivity we find ourselves in a conundrum. If the general rule for all animal containment is "provide and protect" in exchange for products or work, why human captivity is immoral even if we strictly follow the rule? Surely, we could set the ones who can't adapt free and the ones who do would get along just fine. Being able to communicate with the slaves would give us a greater insight into their personalities and goals, making it easier to provide and protect. A system based on that is certainly not very profitable to the owner but can very advantageous to the slave - exchanging his freedom for a cozy, stable life under one master can be an attractive idea to many poor people. But slavery in any form has been labeled as immoral no matter which form it takes. It takes for granted freedom is an inalienable right even if some people don't want or need it.

This strikes me as a paradox. If it is moral (and indeed it is) to hold animals into captivity if we are able to provide and protect for them, why is it immoral to do it to members of our own species given we follow the same rules? Human psychology can be a little more complex, but the underlying mammalian mechanisms still exist: many of us will happily live as slaves as long we are well treated and aren't butchered in the end (we are aware of our impeding doom, contrary to most other animals).

Finneglot said...

This very paradox is what allows the Animal Rights movement to go on. It works in the reverse of my previously statement: we are allowed to be free, why can't animals be? True enough, if we allow ourselves to think we have the right to be free of captivity for whatever reason, there is no reason to belief animals have not. The right to be free, however, is a completely arbitrary right based on the perceived abuses of slavery. Indeed, slavery is quite prone to abuses, as any other human institution. Same with animal captivity. Is this enough reason to scrap animal captivity all together and set billions of livestock free? I don't think so.

If we just admit slavery is okay under some circumstances and under tight regulation, the whole Animal Rights movement would fall into pieces. The paradox would be no longer and we could all enjoy the benefits of not living under double standards. This is, of course, a fantasy. Slavery nowadays is so interwoven with racism thanks to the relatively recent African captivity it is a button no one dares to push. A shameful thing.

By the way Gracchi, I'm terribly sorry for my long-winded replies. I should be starting a blog of my own instead of hijacking the discussion in your commentaries. My poor English allied with my somewhat disperse thought doesn't help either!

James Higham said...

What's going on lately? There are cows everywhere in blogs?

I think animal feelings are accessible, just not articulate.