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Animal Rights and Human Wrongs Essay

Are there limits on how human beings can legitimately treat non-human animals? Or can we treat them just any way we please? If there are limits, what are they? Are they sufficiently strong, as som e peop le supp ose, to lead us to be veg etarians and to se riously curtail, if not eliminate, our use of non-human animals in `scientific’ experiments designed to benefit us? To fully ap preciate this question let me contrast it with two different ones: Are there limits on how we can legitimately treat rocks? And: are there limits on how we can legitima tely treat other human beings? The an swer to th e first ques tion is pre suma bly `No.’ Well, that’s not q uite right. There are som e limits on what w e can le gitimate ly do with or to rocks. If Paula has a pet rock, then Susan can’t justifiably take it away or smash it with a sledge hammer.

After all it is Paula’s rock. Or if there is a rock of unusual beauty or special human interest say the Old Man of Hoy or Mt. Rushmore it would be inappropriate , and pro bably im mora l, for me to te ar it down , to deface it, or to chisel o ut a sectio n to use in my ca tapult. These limits though, arise not from any direct concern for the rocks; rather, they are imposed because of the interests a nd rights of other h uman s. Susan can’t take Paula’s rock for the same reason she can’t take Paula’s eraser: it is Paula’s and Paula has a right to those things which are hers. And no one ca n destro y or defa ce items of specia l natural b eauty because by doing so one is indirectly harming the interests of other humans in them. So there are limits on what we can legitimately do to inanim ate objects, but whatever limits there are arise from some human concern.1 Not so for our treatment of other humans. We suppose that it is inappropriate to treat a human being just any way we wish.

I cannot steal another human; that would be kidnapping. Nor can I sm ash so meon e with a sledgehammer; that would be, depending on the outcome, assault, attempted m urder, or murder. And the reason I cannot do these things has nothing to do with what third parties d o or don ‘t want. It has to do with the interest and desires of that particular person. It is wrong for Susan to hit Paula , not beca use oth er peo ple like Paula or because other people would be offended, but because Paula is a person. Period. Thus, there is a fundamental contrast between those objects which we can treat as we please (excep t when limited by the interests of other humans) and those which we canno t. Ordinary rocks fall into the first camp; humans, into the later. Now, what about nonhuman animals? Do they fall into the first or the se cond c amp? Or som ewhe re in between? There are reasons to believe that many animals and certainly the higher-order anima ls are more like humans than they are like rocks.

Thus, we have reason to believe there are constraints on how we can legitimately treat them, regardless of our particular wishes and desires. Or so I shall argue. For the moment I will simply note that these are beliefs which most of us already have. That is, most of us presume that it is illegitimate to treat animals just anyway we wish. For exam ple, mo st of us be lieve it is wrong to wanto nly kill or torture a higher o rder m amm al. Suppose we discover that some member of our commun ity, say Jones, has a habit of picking up stray dog s or cats a nd dec apitating them w ith his hom e-ma de guillo tine’; 2 or we learn he has invented a machine which draws and quarters them. He uses these machines because he revels in th e anim als’ pain, b ecaus e he relis hes in the sight of blood; or maybe he is a scientist who w ants to stu dy their re action to stress. In this case we rightly surmise that Jones is immoral. We wouldn’t want him to be our pre sident, our friend, our next door neighbor, or our son-in-law.

In short, we all seem to agree that they a re limits on how we can properly treat nonhuman animals, and that these limits arise becau se of the n ature of th e anim als, not m erely because of the de sires of oth er hum ans to see an imals trea ted we ll. That is, such acts are wrong not merely because other humans are bothered by them. We would think them equa lly wrong if they were secretly done so that no one else in the community knew about them. We think they are wrong because of what it does to the animal. On the other hand, we are also part of a culture which rather cavalier ly uses a nimals for food, for clothes, for research in the development of new drugs, and to determine the safety of household products. And many of these u ses req uire inflicting a great d eal of pa in on animals.

Record of such uses is readily available in various academic journals, and chronicled by num erous writers on the topic’. 3 But for the reader who might be unfamiliar with them, let me briefly describe two ways in which we use animals ways which inflict substantial pain on them. Anima ls who are raised for food are obviously raised with the express purpose of making a profit for the farmer. Nothing surprising. But the implications of this are direct and obvious and deleterious to the an imals. There are two ways for a farmer to increase her profit. One is to get higher prices for her goods, the other is to spend less producing those goods. Since there is a limit on how much people will pay for meat, there is substantial financia l pressu re to dec rease th e expe nse of p roducin g the m eat.

This under standa bly leads to over-crowding; after all the more animals a farmer can get into a smaller space, the less it costs to produce the meat. There are similar pressures to restrict the animals’ movement. The less the animals move, the less they eat, thus decreasing the farmer’s expense. For instance, farmers who raise chickens are inclined to put them in small `battery’ cages. They are commonly kept `eight to ten to a space smaller than a newspaper page. Unable to walk around or even stretch their wings much less build a nest the birds be come vicious a nd attac k one a nother ‘.4 The average person seems equally unfamiliar with the extensive use of animals in laboratory experim ents.

Ma ny of thes e are of o nly mo derate significan ce’; 5 most of the them involve extensive pain on animals. For instance, N.J. Carlson gave hig h voltag e electric shocks to sixteen d ogs an d found that the `h igh-sho ck grou p’ acqu ired `an xiety’ faster. Or researchers in Texas constructed a pneumatically driven piston to pound an anvil into the skulls of thirteen monkeys. When it didn’t immediately produce concussions, the researchers increased the strength of the piston until it produced `cardiac damage, hemorrhages and brain dama ge’. 6 Or researchers at Harvard placed baby mice and ba by rats into cages with starving adult male rats. The adults ate them. The researchers’ conclusion: hunger is an important drive in animals.

(That, of course, is some thing we are sho cked to learn; we would have never kno wn this fact otherwise). T HE O PTIONS Now, how d o we sq uare o ur abso lute revu lsion at ou r hypoth etical Jones with his animal guillotine, and our rather blithe acceptance of the treatment of animals on the farm and in the scientific and co mme rcial labo ratories? It is not imm ediately clear tha t we can . What is clear, it seems, it that we have three options, three alternative beliefs about our treatment of anim als. Thes e are: 1) If we are repulsed by Jones treatment of stray animals, we are simply being inappr opriately or unduly squeamish or sympathetic. We should have no aversion to killing, torturin g, or usin g anim als in any way w e pleas e, unles s, of course, that anima l is some one els e’s prop erty, that is, he r pet.

2) There are reasons why we should treat non-human animals better than we treat rocks; nonetheless, there are also reasons why we can use non-huma n anim als in ways we could never legitimately use humans. 3) We should be treating non-human animals more like we currently treat humans. Many of our accepted ways of using animals are, in fact, morally objectionable. The first position, it seems, is completely untenable. No sensible person , I think, is willing to adop t a position which s ays that to rturing a nimals for fun is completely acceptable; no one is willing to say that Jones is a fit mem ber of so ciety. This b elief, it seem s, is virtually unshakable.

Most of you understood perfectly well what I meant when I describe d Jone s’s behavior as `torture.’ But this claim would be nonsense if we thought there were no moral limits on how we could treat animals.7 So we are left with the la tter option s. And, of course, which one we choose, will have a dramatic impact on the lives of humans and of other animals. One necessary clarification: to say that animals should be treated more like humans is not to say that they should be treated exactly like humans. For instance, we need not consider giving animals the right to vote, the right to free religious expression, or the right of free speech. As far as I can ascertain, most an imals do n’t have the necessary capabilities to exercise these rights. However, the same is true of very young children and of se verely retarded adults.

That is why they don’t have these rights either: the y lack the requisite capacities. Nonetheless, the mere fact that some adult humans are not given the right to vote does n ot mea n it is legitimate to have them for lunch or to test bleach in their eyes. So why assume it is so for animals? W HY ANIMALS SHOULDN’T SUFFER NEED LESS PAIN Until now I have been trying to identify our own deeply held convictions about restriction s on the prope r treatme nt of anim als. Now it is high time to try to offer a positive defense of our ordinary understa nding; a defense which will have even more radical implications that we might have supposed. That is, I want to argue for option three above; I want to a rgue tha t there are rather strin gent lim its on wh at it is morally permis sible to do to anima ls. More s pecifically ,

I wish to argue that we should all b ecom e vege tarians a nd that w e shou ld dram atically curtail, if not eliminate, our use of laboratory animals. Though there are numerous arguments which can be offered in this rega rd, I want to defend one particular claim: that we should not inflict need less pain on anim als. Before I go on I should make it clear what I mean by `needless pain.’ The point can be made most clear by use of an analogy. Contrast the following cases: 1) I prick my daughter’s arm with a needle for no apparent reason (though we needn’t assume I derive any sadistic pleasure from it). 2) I am a physician and I inoculate her against typhoid. What differentiates these cases? In both I prick her arm; in both (let us presume) I inflict similar amounts of pain. Yet we consider the latter not only ju stifiable, bu t possibly obligato ry; the former we consider sadistic. Why? Because it inflicts unne cessar y pain. M y daug hter doe s not in any way benefit from it.

Thus, unnecessary pain is that which is inflicted on a sentient (feeling) creature when it is not for the good of that particular creature. The latter is necessary pain; it is pain which the creature suffers for her own good. There are two main premises in my argument. The first is the factual claim that anima ls do, in fact, feel pa in. The second is the claim that the potential of animal suffering severe ly limits what we can justifiably do to them, it constrains the way we can legitima tely use them. That an imals fee l pain That anima ls do feel p ain see ms rela tively unc ontrove rsial. It is a belief we all share. As I noted earlier we couldn’t even make sense of `torturing’ an animal if we assumed it was incapa ble of feeling pain. Nor could we understand being repulsed at Jones’s use of stray anima ls unless we thought the animals suffered at Jones’s hands. If Jones collected abandoned tin cans and cut them to pieces w ith his guillo tine, we m ight think J ones te rribly odd, bu t not imm oral. But more can be said.

We have more than adequate behavioral evidence that anima ls feel pain and that they can suffer. Most of us have seen a dog which has been struck by a car, though not killed instantaneously. The dog convulses, bleed, and yelps. Less drastically, most of us have, at some time or another, stepped on a cat’s tail or a dog’s paw and ha ve witne ssed the anima l’s reaction . The reaction, unsurprisingly, is like our own reaction in similar cases. If someone steps on my hand, I w ill likely yell and attempt to move my hand. But we ne edn’t res t the case on beh avioral e videnc e thoug h it does seem to m e to be more than sufficient. We should also note that we share important anatomical structures with higher o rder an imals. A human being’s central nervous center is remarkably similar to that of a chimpanzee, dog, pig, and even a rat.

That is not to say the brains are exactly alike; they aren’t. The cerebral cortex in human beings is more highly de velope d than in most mamm als (though not noticeably so wh en compare d with a dolphin or a Great Ap e); but the cortex is the location of our `higher brain fun ctions,’ for e xamp le, the sea t of thoug ht, speech, etc. However, the areas of the brain which neurophysiologist identity as the `pain centers’ are virtua lly identica l betwee n hum an and non-h uman anima ls. Accord ing to evolutionary biology this is exactly w hat we should expec t. The pa in centers worke d well in enhancing the survival of lower species, so they were altered only slightly in succeeding evolutionary stages. H igher br ain func tions, how ever, are condu cive to survival, and thus, have led to more dramatic advances in cerebral development. Given all this, it seems undeniable that many animals do feel pain. That they feel pain is morally relevant ‘So what?’ someone might ask. `

Even if animals do feel p ain, why should that limit or at least se riously restrict our treatment of them? Why can’t we still use them for our purposes, whatever those purposes happen to be?’ Let’s turn the question around for a moment and ask why we think we should be able to use them for our purposes, given that they are capable of suffering? After all, we are staunc hly opposed to inflicting unnecessary pain on human beings. If animals can also feel pain, why shouldn’t we have the same reluctance to inflicting needless pain on them? A crucial tenet of ethics is that we should treat like cases alike. Th at is, we sh ould treat two cases the same unless there is some general and relevant reason which justifies the difference in treatment. Thus, two students who perform equally well in the same class should get the same grade; two who perform rather differently should receive different grades. By the same token, if two creatures feel pain and it is improper to inflict needless pain on one of them , it would likewise be improper to inflict needless pain on the othe r. But the argumen t has pro gresse d too qu ickly.

This a rgum ent wo rks only if the reason it is wrong to inflict need less pain on the one creature is that it feels pain. If there is some other reason so me rea son wh ich could differentia te hum an from non-h uman anim als then we would not be able to infer that it is illegitim ate to inflict needless pain on animals. Hence, if someone wishes to show that it is not wrong to inflict needless pain on animals, then she must identify some relevant difference between human and non-huma n animals, some differenc e which justifies this d ifference in treatm ent. And, of course , this is just wh at mos t defend ers of ou r presen t treatme nt of anim als are inclined to do. Tho ugh pe ople on ce rega rded a nimals as non-sentient creatures as mere automata that is no longer so.

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