I see that Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science recently republished an interesting series of posts on animal rights and scientific ethics that originally came out around the same time I was writing about my experience at an animal rights protest. In light of that, we’ll keep this discussion going with the following post, which I wrote back in January as a follow-up to some of the comments on my post about the animal rights protest.
(16 January 2006) This post began as a response to a comment a friend left on my last post, “Caught in the Line of Fire”, but once I started I got carried away. Included in my friend’s comment was a link to the article “All Animals Are Equal” by the philosopher Peter Singer, which was an interesting read that appealed strongly to the humanitarian in me, and I would recommend taking a look at it. On the other hand, its foundation in science was shaky, and I found several problems, which I discuss below. I believe that humans have a responsibility to be humane, respectful, and caring to one another, to other animals, and to nature and the environment in general. At the same time, I believe that it does us all a disservice to ignore the basic cold hard facts of nature, something that Singer had to do to build his argument.
While I found Singer’s article well-written and skillfully argued, it felt contrived, particularly in his use of the term “speciesism.” Although I do not feel that the state of something in nature justifies it ethically, I was bothered by Singer was implying that “speciesism,” discrimination based on species, is a strictly human phenomenon (although he did not explicitly state this). One would have to go out of one’s way to ignore such a statement in a discussion like Singer’s, so at the very least he left out an inconvenient fact. Of course, every animal species practices “speciesism,” putting the survival of its own species above the survival of any other. In fact all lifeforms do this, acting primarily out of self interest, not just animals–plants, fungi, protozoa, and of course bacteria. Acting out of self interest does not require harming other species, and many species engage in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but harming other species is never out of the question in the natural world. Nature is beautiful in its complexity and amazing in its ability to host life at all, but it is also exceedingly cruel. With that said, its ubiquitous presence in nature does not automatically justify “speciesism” (or any other type of violence, discrimination, or self-interest). Still, it is important to acknowledge that Singer’s article was misleading on this point.
The main argument against Singer follows from one he used himself, the difficult process of determining where we draw the line. The title of the article is “All Animals are Equal,” but I doubt he really means that. He lists many cute and furry animals, but he does not state a position on reptiles or amphibians, for example. They don’t seem that much like humans, but they share a large number of similarities to mammals in basic behaviors and structures. Okay, then what about fish? Sure, that’s pushing it, but why not? Then we should probably include insects and other invertebrates, which also animals. At that point there is no reason to stop with the animal kingdom, making everything is fair game. Why not? Each group has large similarities to another group related a step closer to humans. Even drawing the line at vertebrates, for example, is tricky, since the boundary is not always clear. Sea squirts, for example, live their early days as mobile animals with containing the precursor to a spinal cord, but they later settle down into a sedentary lifestyle more closely resembling that of a plant, or at least a sponge. It’s very clear that there are few distinct boundaries in nature (the boundaries between species can be distinct, as with the division between humans and their closest animal relatives, but not always), and Singer himself never states where he believes the boundary should exist.
Another question is that of whether with equal rights come equal responsibilities. It would be extremely difficult and absolutely unfair for humans to enforce our laws (or even very basic human values) on other animal societies, where sexism and violence, for example, are prevalent in everyday life. Of course I do not believe animals have to conform to such ideals to earn our respect, but then again it is difficult to consider them equals under such circumstances. Mammals more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees, can approximate human behaviors and understanding in many ways, and that is something we should give a great deal of consideration. Is conducting any research on these mammals inhumane? It’s possible, and we should have a more open dialogue in our society about this. When animal rights activists call all animal research torture and Singer calls all animals “equals,” though, having this dialogue becomes much more difficult. This is what I meant in my last post, when I described the animal rights activists I met as having an “extreme ideology.” Refusing to recognize these basic differences between species is highly irrational.
I also had some additional minor criticisms of the article. Singer invokes the unattractive idea of a human society built on a hierarchy based on I.Q.s as similar to “discriminating” between different species. What he does not acknowledge is that while I.Q.s are a very poor measure of human ability, and no completely objective measure of human ability or worth exists, we can determine with 100% certainty whether an animal is a human, and this identification has an objective basis in science. Later in the article Singer even describes eating as a way “to satisfy trivial interests of our own,” but I doubt many people would agree that eating is trivial, since one will soon perish from not engaging in this activity. I do appreciate him mentioning the cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and elsewhere in agriculture, though, which is an issue that deserves much more consideration from society.
In the end, while I found the article thoughtful and an interesting read, it is fundamentally flawed in the ways outlined above. I agree with animal rights activists insofar as the humaneness of animal research needs to be vigilantly maintained, and while I think we have great framework for this in our society, I see no reason why it can’t be improved, and I believe we should have a more open dialogue on this. However, demanding an end to all animal research, along with calling animals our equals, is counterproductive and will probably lead to none of these ends being accomplished.