Monsieur Descartes, My Clocks Usually Don’t Bleed: On the Moral Status of Animals

I was listening to a radio show some time ago. The topic was anything in general, but somehow drifted specifically to the subject of animal rights. The host talked to a caller who is dedicated to preventing the mistreatment of dogs in New york (in New York because that’s where she lived). The host spoke some time about PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Now, I like animals, I own one. He’s cute and I like him. And I generally try to treat (most) of my fellow living beings, human and not-so-human, with some degree of respect, but I CANNOT STAND PETA! I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any organization that seems to like animals more than they like people. I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. There are some animals that are totally more likable than some people. But, whenever I hear one of their non-celebrity spokespeople speaking (speaking would make one a apokesperson, wouldn’t it?), I get the creeps. These people are hiding something. Some really unpleasant agenda that entails breeding more jackrabbits and breeding less people. Which brings me to why I’m writing this in the first place. Despite the fact that I have this blog, I don’t do much in the way of web surfing. Only recently was I made aware that the frontman for my favorite band did some bit for my least favorite animal-crazy organization (that organization being the aformentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It seems that there is some sort of market for the wearing of animal furs out there. Since wearing the hides of chinchillas or mink or Siberian white tigers is not so PC — as this activity tends to cause animals to go extinct — the fur marketeers, instead of not selling fur, simply moved on to a more available source of fur — namely cats and dogs. I was totally not aware of this. So, I was trolling the web, and Icame upon this very topic (using cats and dogs for fur) when I was looking for info about the latest nine inch nails cd, The Slip (an outstanding cd, I might add). It seems that Trent Reznor did this thing for PETA about the use of cats and dogs for fur. The first thing I thought wasn’t, ‘wow, this guy is really cool and super compassionate. he cares about our furry friends’. No, it wasn’t at all like that. My immediate reaction was something like, ‘et tu Brute?’. I mean really, don’t you just hate it when someone you dig does something so not diggable? I like his band, and I think he’s hot (I am such a girl), but I SIMPLY CANNOT STAND PETA!!! And really, think about it: if there’s any group of animals that, if we should wear fur, it should be cats and dogs. I can say right now that there are approximately four dogs and an infinte number of stray cats currently running around my neighborhood at this time and all would make fine coats. Especially that mottled cat that has taken to shitting all over my front lawn. Now, let me get one thing straight. I don’t think that people, unless you live somewhere near the North or South Poles, should be in the habit of wearing fur. And, I definitely think that animals shouldn’t have to endure what could only be described as “torture” to get their fur off of their bodies so I can look good ( as if that were possible). But, I confess, I eat meat, I think cows are pretty much useless, and I have at least one pair of shoes with genuine leather uppers, so I realize that I’m not entirely off the hook. And I’m not so dumb to not realize that there’s a slight hypocrisy in saying that wearing animal fur is bad, yet enjoying the taste of said animal’s flesh with cheese and thousand island dressing. Worse yet, I’m not immune from “cuddly animals syndrome” — the tendency of humans to not care one lick about animals who aren’t cute and adorable (but then, we treat people the same way, which explains alot about why I am here writing this post, and not out doing something with other people). The way that I feel — about fur, about my dog, about animals in general, has to do with the way that I feel about whether they do or do not fit into our moral sphere. The question of fur simply put is a question of moral status. When we consider moral status, for humans and animals, we are asking , among many questions, who counts morally and why and who should be included and what justifies the inclusion? So, looking at something close to home, when I think of my dog, I think that he is a being that is worthy of my concern and care. I try to make sure that he is well cared for and that he lives his life as pain free as possible. Why? Why do I feel morally obligated to care for him? First off, he’s not human. Second, he is unable to care for me (at least in a way beyond barking whenever he feels that there is a “danger” — which includes barking at the wind, at birds chirping too loudly outside, at the neighbors getting it and out of their cars…). But, I still care for him. I more than care, I feel that if I did not, I would be in the wrong. Somehow, my dog fits in with all of whom I feel morally obligated to care for. He’s in my moral sphere despite the fact that he is not human. The fact that he is a mere dog is not a difference significant enough to count against him. I see what I’m busy doing here: when I think of why my dog is morally includable, I automatically shoot through a list of criteria for inclusion. I see at the top of my list is the question ‘ is it human?’ . For some, this has been and is a deciding factor for inclusion or exclusion in the moral sphere. So, when I consider my dog, I have in my mind a set of criteria that he must meet for moral inclusion. These criteria include his similarity to humans, whether he can speak or reason, etc. These, when considered, make up a list of morally relevant characteristics. These are the characteristics I will consider when I decide whether another being will or will not be included in my moral sphere. Wait, I’m beginning to jumble my words as well as my thoughts. I’m trying to think up too much at one time. Let me try to write this a little more scholarly. When we consider any being, be it animal or human, we look for any morally relevant characteristics that we’ll consider when we determine whether that being will be included in our moral sphere. These characteristics are morally significant — in that they make or break a being’s inclusion. Historically, the fact that other animals were not human was more than enough for moral exclusion. The Bible (well, actually it was God) gives man dominion of all the animals. The book of Genesis states: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds if the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:26). The ancient Greeks pretty much held the same view: In his Politics, Aristotle stated that man’s rationality (as opposed to the biblical view that man’s superiority over animals rested in the fact that he was created in God’s image) placed him above all other creatures. Aristotle states, ” all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man”. Asistotle reasoned that animals were passionate and governed by their urges. An animal that is subject to the whim of his passions cannot, by nature, rule himself and therefore, must be ruled. Since man (and he did mean MAN) was governed by his intellect, he was naturally fit to rule. Aristotle wrote, “the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild… for food and the provision of clothing and various instruments”. Man was supreme, and all other animals (and a fair number of other people) existed merely to serve the needs of Man. The birth of modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, didn’t do much to change the classic attitude. Descartes claimed that animals are (get this) machines. Although animals communicate with people, Descartes wrote, the fact that they lack the capacity for “real speech” indicated that they lacked the intellect that qualified them for inclusion among sentient beings. According to Descartes, the fact that animals lacked the capacity for speech indicated that animals lacked the capacities for “pure thought” and that speech was the only indicator that we could be certain that a creature possesses the capacity for rational thought. Like the ancients, Descartes also believed that animals lack the ability to control of their “natural impulse”. So, for Descartes, the mere machines we call animals were fit for whatever use we saw fit — including nailing them to walls and disecting them. The sounds of their wailing in pain, Descartes claimed, was no different from the twangs and pings made by a clock as one dismantles it. So ignore the shrieking and blood, Rene says. It’s just makes that noise when you unscrew its parts. I’m not kidding. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection challenged the old ideas of man on top ( I could insert a dirty joke here — I just did), and apart from nature, in favor of a view of man as a part of nature. According to Darwin, man’s intellect made him better at some things (better than animals) but in other capacities, say the capacity for flight, non-human beings had the advantage. For Darwin, “better” did not automatically infer superior (at least in the sense that one animal is superior to all others in all capabilities). Better, according to Darwin, was a matter of successful adaptation to one’s environment, rather than an innate superiority to others beings. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin intends to show that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties”. As for the “lower” animals, Darwin states that the they “like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery”. Darwin writes, “Terror acts in the same manner on them as on us, causing the muscles to tremble, the heart to palpitate, the sphincters to be relaxed, and the hair to stand on end”. Darwin, breaking with the traditional view, further states, ” the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not one of kind… the various emotions and faculties… of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient animal, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals”. I suppose this is where someone would say Descartes can shove it. According to the Darwinian view, the fact that man possessed speech or even reason gave us no reason to assume, based on those qualities, that man was naturally superior to all other animals. Our ability to speak may be, in the evolutionary sense, a mere result of homo sapiens adaptation to his environment. The fact that other animals lack speech isn’t a sign of inherent inferiority so much as it reflects the possibility that other species did not need speech to successfully adapt to their environment. Our differences are manifestations of adaptations from which we cannot confer moral biological or moral superiority. This, the Darwinian view, is how we look at many animals — that is, for most of us, mere biological differences bear little or no moral significance when we decide who counts for us morally. Wait, that’s not exactly true. We, as humans, tend to be inpressed by the visual. We tend to cast our moral nets over those who seem most like us. We would be less likely to exclude a gorilla who “speaks” using American sign language from our moral sphere than would exclude a honey badger or a totally un-cute animal like a shrew. We still count what can tell us “ow!’. If I step on my dog’s foot, he yipes in pain. If I slam a 6 foot python around, it doesn’t make a sound. And besides, my dog is cuter than a python. My dog can learn to do tricks and has a bit of a personality. From his body language, I can tell when he is hungry (which is all the time), when he needs to go outside and do his business, when he’s upset, or scared… but the python just lies there. I can’t tell anything about him — even if he’s living or not. So, I find myself applying a bit of Cartesian morality when I think of snakes. The snake, from my point of view, cannot articulate anything to me. It lacks any capacity to communicate at all to me. This is a problem. How do we include something that doesn’t seem to interact with us at all? I think that someone would have to be an absolute weirdo to deny the fact that many humans see themselves as something different or apart from other animals. Even though many of us care about animals, we still hold on to the notion that humans (generally) hold a place apart from other beings, and the fact that other animals are not human plays (whether we like it or not) a part in our moral attitudes and practices. Human are special, and that’s that. Enter moral consideration. Peter Singer suggests that we approach our moral attitudes from the view that we consider the needs of other animals when we behave in a manner that will affect other non-human species. The only thing is that we consider their needs equally. Singer’s approach isn’t a claim for equal rights, but a claim for equal moral consideration. In Animal Liberation Singer writes, ” Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights”. Even if we consider how other animals will be affected by our actions (say, for instance, we’re planning to cut down a section of Brazillian rainforest to raise beef for McDonalds), we might decide that our needs outweigh those of the animal. If we planned to slaughter millions of potentially life-saving tropical plants and animals in order to feed overweight Americans juicy BigMacs, we may, after considering the needs of the rainforest’s flora and fauna, decide that we should get to slashing and burning right away. The point is that we considered the needs of the animals before we killed them and destroyed their home. BigMacs aren’t really all that juicy, come to think of it. Singer says the fact that we (humans) are physically different from other animals gives is no moral justification for simply dismissing the needs and interests of other species. Singer parallels our moral attitudes towards animals to the way that we once thought about race and gender. At one time, one’s gender or race dictated one’s opportunities or treatment. If, for instance, a person were born a woman, she was considered property of her familt and then, if she married, the property of her husband. Her needs and interests were not up for discussion. But, as we’ve become more enlightened, we’ve seen that the lack of a penis does not make one’s status less than an individual who just so happens to have been born with one. And more importantly, it shouldn’t count for unequal moral consideration. Women, like men, feel anger, happiness, fear, pain and suffering equally. And as Darwin (and Bentham) noted, animals also possess the capacity to feel these emotions as well. Bentham says that the capacity to suffer is a vital characteristic for moral consideration. The ability to feel happiness or pain transcends the capacity for language or the ability to perform complex operations like mathematics (thank god for that!). I step on my dog’s foot, and he cries out in pain. Likewise, if I drop Clorox into the eyes of a rabbit, it will probably make some sort of “that hurts” noise. If someone belts me a good one, I’m probably going to tell them that it hurt a little. If someone decides to wrap a guy’s head in towels and pour water on their face to simulate drowning, they’ll probably describe the experience as painful or unpleasant. In all of these situations, each animal, human and non-human experienced pain and indicated it. The fact that If an animal can suffer, Bentham says, means that we cannot ignore the fact that it does. Singer also uses the capacity to suffer as a morally relevant characteristic. Singer states, “if a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that into consideration”. But wait, someone says. If I have to consider whether some animal is going to suffer every time I do anything, I won’t do anything because I’ll be too worried about inflicting pain on some gnat or something. This is a concern especially from those who care about the suffering of animals but still want to eat the occasional chicken sandwich. The fear is that we’ll be so worried about doing anything harmful, that everyone will become a vegan, and no one will ever find the cure for cancer. But Singer himself says that suffering isn’t the same as killing. We should remember that equal consideration doesn’t mean equal treatment. For instance, we understand that children lack the same capacity for reason than adults. Let’s say that a 6 year old child had killed his best friend while playing with his mother’s Ginzu knife set. We know that a child does not operate on the same intellectual level as an adult. We may think that he did not fully understand the possibility that plunging a butcher’s knife into the heart of his BFF would result in his friend’s immediate and irreversable death. The fact that the child lacks the capacity for reason does not mean that we throw the kid out to the wolves. In fact, we feel an even greater moral obligation to him because he does not know what he did. We feel that the child deserves the same fair trial and protection under the law as we would extend to any adult. When we decided to charge the little tyke as an adult, we considered the fact that he’s just six year’s old. But, after w considered that fact, we decided that the demonseed needed to fry anyway. Which is where, I think, Singer was going when he said that inflicting suffering on a being isn’t the same as killing it. If there was no other way to cure a certain disease beyond performing animal research, then, in the interest of saving human lives, we might go ahead and do the research. We know that there are speedy and virtually painless ways to slaughter animals ( that is, unless you consider death itself a harm, but that’s a different issue for another philosopher). There are some situations, Singer admits, that we cannot treat animals equally. I appreciate the fact that this is the way that I’m supposed to feel about animals. And if I were a real philosopher who was concerned about appearing to be enlightened, I would probably feel more inclined to travel along the same lines as Singer. But I’m not. I admit that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot divorce myself from the feeling that being human carries more moral weight than some of us believe it does. I reject the idea the humanness is not a morally relevant characteristic — and that different (in the Darwinian sense) does not mean better. The fact that I cannot say what makes humans different does not mean that there is no thing that does. And, because I totally reject the notion of my being a philosopher, I will leave my opinion at that. I got some music I gotta go listen to.

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