My recent post on animal rights prompted some interesting discussions regarding the moral status of nonhuman animals.
John Humphreys offered some thoughtful responses to my presentation of the argument in favour of extending the right not to be property to sentient animals, and attempted a moral defence of using animals for our food, clothing, and entertainment. I shall address his arguments here.
Drawing on the work of Gary Francione, I presented the example of a man torturing a stray dog for pleasure. I argued that as our use of animals for food, clothing, and entertainment—practices that involve inflicting horrific suffering—cannot be considered ‘necessary’ in any way, our choices to eat animals, wear them, and exhibit them for our enjoyment are morally inconsistent with our supposed belief that animals should not be subject to ‘unnecessary suffering’.
In response, John argued that unlike the example of the man blowtorching the dog, our use of animals is morally distinct because ‘…when we use an animal for food, clothing and even entertainment, our pleasure comes despite the pain of the animal.’ That is, there is a significant difference—a distinction of immorality from morality—between torturing an animal because the act itself is enjoyable and gaining pleasure from eating animal products.
I accept the notion that our enjoyment from using animals is often separate from causing them terrible pain and suffering. Most people are unaware of the suffering involved in producing animal products for their consumption, yet still gain pleasure from eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Although this may be the case, the question remains: does the enjoyment of something that cannot be produced without the suffering of animals make that suffering morally justifiable?
To use Francione’s example of the man torturing the dog, we would still find it morally abhorrent for the man to blowtorch the dog even if he did not enjoy doing so, or—to take the example closer to the position of the average omnivore—he was also paid by someone else who gained pleasure from eating the well-cooked animal. In either of these cases we object because we believe that blowtorching a dog causes harm to the dog herself, and that it is wrong to do so simply for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. It may be worse to enjoy the act of torturing the dog, but that does not mean that it is morally justifiable to torture the dog to gain marginal benefit from her torture.
A key element of Francione’s animal rights theory that I presented in my original post is the claim that whatever ability or feature we select to morally distinguish humans from nonhumans, at least some humans to whom we grant the protection of the right not to be considered a resource do not share that feature. This is commonly known as the argument from marginal cases and it is at the core of the animal rights position.
John’s argument against the argument from marginal cases represents what libertarian scholar David Graham has called the argument from species normality. That is, there is some feature of being human—John suggests that this feature is the perception of free will or moral agency—that ‘normal’ humans have and therefore we should make a generalisation about all humans based on this feature. As Graham explains, ‘the moral status of an individual depends on what is normal for that individual’s species.’
However, we do treat humans with different moral interests differently. As Graham shows, we do not consider marginal humans—such as infants and those with severe mental disabilities—to have the moral duties of ‘normal’ humans. We do not punish marginal humans for crimes like we punish ‘normal’ humans who are fully aware of their actions.
Furthermore, it seems absurd to consider that whatever feature or ability informs the argument from species normality is the reason we believe it is wrong to treat marginal humans as resources. For example, we would not consider blowtorching a baby morally wrong because she ‘is a member of a species that normally has the ability to make rational moral choices’ or because she ‘has the potential to become a full self-owner’. Instead, we regard torturing an infant as morally indefensible because infants and other marginal humans are sentient moral subjects with an interest in not suffering at all as the result of being used by others.
Nonhuman animals have this same interest.