Animal rights is an issue that sometimes comes to the fore based on some significant event that the media picks up. Often it is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals doing something dubious (e.g., in regard to wearing fur or vivisection or something). Today is a momentous day, though, because the Ringling Brothers Circus, after nearly 150 years, is calling it quits. I for one am a tad bit sad to see that unique piece of Americana go, but mostly relieved that finally those animals who are – let’s face it – slaves, will get to retire. So, almost everyone feels something about animal rights – experimentation, circuses, zoos, shelters euthanizing unwanted dogs and cats, or eating animals, but what are the moral issues involved? How should we probably be deciding about this thorny ethical issue? What rights do animals have that ought to be respected?
I explore the moral side of animal rights with two very able guests on my talk radio program, Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom, here.
On the YouTube video about animal rights (first paragraph), a critic of this perspective wrote: “Everyone here complaining about it… but I bet they don’t say no to the medical advances that have been discovered because of experiments on animals.” Fair point? Yes, to some degree. Noah Dillon replies: “No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean this is OK, humane, etc. We should probably be investing heavily in developing computer modeling systems capable of taking on this kind of stuff for medical research. (I think that’s a good, likely alternative, but I might be wrong.) The bars should probably be pretty high to get approval for testing, and testing for cosmetic treatments, I think, should be discontinued altogether. And obviously the biggest, easiest way minimize animal cruelty is to stop consuming animal products and byproducts. I think you can abhor this stuff and still be pragmatic.” A mother also weighs in on animal rights: “Cutting open a cat’s head while it’s still alive, cracking its skull, and digging its brain out, then replacing it with cotton balls has so much scientific validity, right? What the hell is wrong with these people?? What does that test prove? WE KNOW WHAT WILL FUCKING HAPPEN ALREADY.” Preach it, sister!
I will note that probably the seminal work of a fairly famous psychologist named Martin E. P. Seligman was conducted on dogs and involved electric shocks. This was quite a while ago, and ethical standards for using animal subjects in experiments has improved. The theory he developed and which has been borne out by many less-cruel studies is valuable for many people, especially those in psychotherapy and with depression. It’s called learned helplessness. It’s most interesting. If human beings were more responsible and more ethical, then the suffering and sacrifice of helpless animal subjects would be more justifiable; however, most Americans (followed incidentally by Mexicans) are overweight, and that is a lifestyle issue, and it has real health consequences. Diabetes and heart disease and cancer and depression are linked to being overweight. Should an animal that can feel fear, loneliness, and pain be experimented on so that some person who doesn’t have the knowledge or will to avoid health-related disease can get a pill to compensate for their personal issues?
Most people, when they see a video, expose, documentary, or movie (or worse – a live experience!), feel very uncomfortable. Save for sociopaths, we have empathy, which causes us to feel what a suffering animal feels. You know those commercials for the ASPCA or whatever with the song playing by Sarah McLaughlin that come on frequently and last for a whole minute!? Often people who are caring and emotionally alive will look away because just a 2-D image of animal suffering is painful. That is good! Morality is somewhat about rationality – deciding what is right and keeping emotions (and self-service) out of the equation. However, it is also about feeling what the other feels. I wouldn’t say that it’s far-fetched to claim that Martin Buber’s now-famous “I-Thou” relationship classification is applicable to human-pet relationships. In fact, with some human-pet relationships, the human benefits greatly and is emotionally devastated by the loss of the animal from age, disease, or if they wander off. When I saw the sappy movie A Dog’s Purpose, I cried, because I had to put down my best friend 14 months ago and it brought back haunting memories of ordering the vet to euthanize our wonderful Great Dane, Atlas. I claim that it is only one small step to empathize with all animals, and to feel that animal rights is a legitimate philosophical issue that deserves our attention.
If animals count in their own right, our use of animals for food becomes questionable – especially when animal flesh is a luxury rather than a necessity.
So, vivisection is pretty much a moral no-no. It is cruel, and leads to dark places. As far as more legitimate scientific study of animals for veterinary purposes, or to yield important results of a scientific nature for which there are no reasonable alternatives, well, I think it’s probably justifiable. But we should not be ignorant of the goings-on in the scientific community. We should know that animals are sacrificing all of their freedom, natural existence, joy and often, their very lives, for us. If this is for an AIDS cure, it’s morally worthy; if it’s for another impotence drug, cosmetics, or some other dubious goal, then we must not let them suffer for these purposes. We do not think much about using live “lower” animals for our pedantic scientific studies; I’m in favor of doing so, so long as we obtain written or verbal informed consent from such subjects. Until such time, we’re selfish, callous, and benighted.
How about circuses and zoos? Circuses are morally wrong, I think. Zoos have some laudable goals, such as animal husbandry, preservation of endangered species, and maybe, possibly, education/entertainment. In the case of orcas as Sea World, I say no way is that justifiable. It is very hard on the whales, and is pretty much for pure amusement. As money ruins much of what it comes into contact with, the Sea World thing is a dark phenomenon. This movie makes it pretty plain. As this movie depicts, animals are at least sentient, most probably worth of proper treatment, and in the case of dogs and cats and the like: lovable, loving, and unique. Sure I think it’s cool to see a lion, but it is after all, in a cage. Yes, some will point out, they often live quite a while in captivity, but still, we are not putting animals on display in zoos to lengthen their lives, we are doing it in part to sell admission tickets. Typically, something earning some entity a profit is grounds for questioning the morality of the act. In the case of zoos, animal rights are not particularly prioritized. “I do not think that the fact that the human is a member of the species Homo sapiens is in itself a reason for regarding his or her life as being of greater value than that of a member of a different species,” Peter Singer notes. He is saying that animals have a right to not be used, or abused, simply because we are human, powerful, and want to do so. That would be considered morally wrong. Something morally wrong is supposed to elicit guilt, and reduce that kind of behavior in the conscientious moral actor. To do less than to change in light of insight is either laziness or contempt.
Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of the country as Wall Street and the railroads.
Hunting is an interesting moral question. I would say it has some moral elements along the lines of: Do you really think it is fair to use all your human-invented technology to be able to outsmart an animal and shoot it to death? What will you use the meat for? Are you “trophy hunting” animals for fun and psychological needs? Do you kill any more than you are going to eat? Have you considered vegetarianism? Does the animal have a quick death? Are you thinning the herd or robbing an ecosystem of a valuable member? I would say that trophy hunting, harvesting bear bile and rhino horns and elephant tusks and baby seal fur is about as morally despicable as one can possibly be. Obviously, the torture of animals by children and adolescents who are delinquent is grotesque as well. In sum, hunting to eat meat in a responsible manner seems somewhat justifiable; less ethical than reducing one’s consumption of meat, but easier on the environment than to patronize factory farms. Cows are particularly bad for the environment.
Thus, it gets very tricky with consuming animals as food. One of the main issues is that animals such as cows lead to much environmental damage. Second, we do not require animal flesh for our survival; we basically just like the taste. Third, the conditions animals experience from birth to the slaughterhouse range from acceptable to absolutely deplorable. Gene Baur, one of the guests I interviewed for the radio show, is the long-time head of Farm Sanctuary, a group that advocates for proper and humane treatment of animals and a full-throated recognition of animal rights. It is clear that animals are routinely maltreated in the pursuit of flesh that tastes good when cooked, and that is morally reprehensible. Please, please, buy pasture-raised chicken eggs, humanely-treated meats, and consider going vegetarian. Imagine living as one of the animals in videos such as the ones featured on Gene’s site. It would be a living hell. We should not create a living hell for other sentient creatures, period. If we must eat animals, let’s put their welfare first and foremost. Money or oral gratification are not reasons enough to make animals suffer. We outlawed slavery in this country a long time ago, and one day we will treat food animals a lot better. Here is an article written by Gene that makes it seem not all that difficult to do the right thing by our fellow animals. Of course, we are the species that created the Holocaust, slavery, child molestation, war, sex slaves, and for-profit healthcare, so I won’t hold my breath… We can do better.
Think about what it feels like to be scared, cold, crowded, diseased, mistreated, and even tortured, and you will be able to follow your heart toward improvements in animal rights – and which companies you patronize. Vote with your dollars!
As with most issues, the Golden Rule is a perfect way to reason about the morality involved. When it comes to animal rights, ask yourself: Would I be able to say that the animal in question is not being mistreated, suffering, or facing unnecessary stress? Test it by asking: Could I swap places with the animal in question with my own beloved pet? How about myself? Essentially the Golden Rule requires us to do unto each animal as I would have done to myself. If you can fit the situation into that scheme, you should be morally blameless. Philosopher Judith Barad puts it like this: “Though we…may justify the “discomfort” we inflict upon animals in the name of progress, our perspective would undoubtedly change if we were the ones being pursued, processed, pricked, or probed.” In general, it is more challenging to greatly reduce, give up, or carefully select producers of bacon than it is to continue; however, the health, environmental, and ethical benefits are clear. One of the hallmarks of being a mature adult is realizing that we can’t get everything we want. Ideally, we also grow into more sensitive and moral individuals, helping ever, hurting never.
What about the rejoinder that “nature, red, in tooth and claw,” as George Gordon Byron wrote? Indeed, undomesticated animals (especially carnivores) are bereft of concern for the feelings of victims of prey; lions, orcas, elephants and even (especially?) chimpanzees can be characterized as callous, wild, and vicious. There are a few points to consider. One, animals usually always kill as quickly as possible, and consume as much of the kill as possible. Two, they get a thrill from killing, but that is the instinct to survive, not a shallow desire to enjoy delicacies. Finally, human beings are the most emotionally-developed animal on the planet; we can fairly expect emotionally mature and morally upstanding behavior from the inventors of philosophy, music, religion, topiary, and dessert. Though human beings are responsible for war, profiteering, and betrayal, we also have the capacity to realize right from wrong, and are capable of determining what rights animals fairly possess and recognizing them. Honoring them. Lions, despite their beauty and grace, have no ability to preserve, uphold, or defend animals who are essentially defenseless, but humans arguably do. Human rationality can shine in instances such as deciding to go vegetarian, donate to the ASPCA, or buy 10 chicks, treat them with respect, and harvest 1,000 eggs over the next three years for the cost of the feed.
Take pride in caring for God’s furry and feathery creatures (if you think along those lines), and make animal rights a valuable part of your life. Try one of three things if you ask yourself if you are good to all life on the planet: (1) donate the dollar value of what you would have eaten in a week to charity instead. Try Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. (2) adopt a shelter animal or, at least, go visit a shelter. Just seeing the poor dogs and cats living boring and lonely existences (and often, headed for a lethal injection) can make a difference. As I learned by adopting a Jack Russell Terrier mix named Freckles, it can make a notable positive difference in our lives, too. (3) Become a lacto-ovo vegetarian: eating any fruits, grains, vegetables, and so on, but limiting animal product to eggs and dairy (including cheese). Go to Whole Foods or some such store and make sure the milk and eggs are treated humanely – uncaged and uncrowded. Feel a sense of pride in taking this step to lower the amount of suffering in the world! Watch one of the videos on the net if you are having trouble getting motivated. Add shrimp if you can’t hack sticking to boiled/scrambled/poached eggs, quiches, French toast, quesadillas, and omelets.
One of the most vocal and adroit supporters of a vigorous recognition of animal rights is philosopher Peter Singer. Here are some of his quotes on the subject, as well as a few others, too. As always, you can search for quotes on ethics, morality, animal rights, or right action here.
The beliefs and customs we were brought up with may exercise great influence on us, but once we start to reflect upon them we can decide whether to act in accordance with them, or to go against them.
Of course we revel in the animals themselves. Still, part of what we see when we look at a dog is: the dog looking at us. This is a component of our bond, too. I still imagine my own dog, Pumpernickel, looking at me, seeing herself in my eyes. And I look at her, seeing myself in hers.
Human beings have been exterminating animals at the average rate of one species a year for the past two centuries. The rate appears to be on the increase, despite the raising of ecological awareness that began in the late 1960s.
It is not ethically justifiable to bring an individual’s life to an untimely end in order to serve someone else’s interests. In other words, the harm done to an animal by ending his or her life is far worse than the harm you and I experienced by switching to spaghetti with tomato sauce, or not eating meat altogether.
The case for vegetarianism is at its strongest when we see it as a moral protest against our use of animals as mere things, to be exploited for our convenience in whatever way makes them most cheaply available to us.
My music is best understood by children and animals.
Man is a clever animal who behaves like an animal.
Researchers find it very necessary to keep blinkers on. They don’t want to admit that the animals they are working with have feelings. They don’t want to admit that they might have minds and personalities because that would make it quite difficult for them to do what they do; so we find that within the lab communities there is a very strong resistance among the researchers to admitting that animals have minds, personalities, and feelings.
Not Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Astor together could have raised enough money to buy a quarter share in my little dog.
Whoever heard of hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?
If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.
…a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
The act of openly challenging basic beliefs, according to Socrates, can save a society from its ignorance and self-destructive apathy. A society that’s too uncritically apathetic won’t stay vigorous and vital for long.
I welcome you to search on quotations about fair treatment of animals, animal rights, and ethics here in our own Wisdom Archive.