A Very Short Reading Group discussion

Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction
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message 1: by Stockton (new)

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments From a review of the book:

"while the philosophical arguments regurgitated in the book aren't worth the paper they are written on, the practical examples of the inappropriate treatment of animals, factory farming, animals in cages or killed for human pleasure, certainly are."

Can animal rights be easily dismissed if favour of animal welfare, or is there space to consider what rights an animal can posses?

Nigel Bamber | 31 comments A good book, although by the author’s own admission, a biased one. However, I feel that objections to the bias were recognised and addressed, although the opposing views were obviously not expressed as energetically as they would have been by someone holding them. I was able to handle this as my on beliefs include a fair amount of alignment with the author in kind, if not in extent.

As usual this has given me a lot to think about over the last week. The question of to whom or what we feel we owe ethical obligations is very complex.
All species are effectively in competition with each other, whilst at the same time being to a greater or lesser extent dependent on each other. The question was raised to what extent we owe an animal an ethical consideration if that animal itself isn’t a ethical agent. What constitutes morality varies from species to species.

A lion doesn’t give a lot of thought to the needs of a wildebeest as it rips it throat out, to be able to feed it’s cubs. To the cubs it is behaving kindly, to the wildebeest, it is probably the embodiment of evil. A surprisingly profound line from an episode of Dr Who, “Hunger looks a lot like evil from the other end of the fork”. I once stood watching a sparrowhawk pin down a blackbird that it had taken in my front garden, and was subsequently soundly berated by a woman for not intervening to save the victim. “That blackbird has chicks!” I was informed. The sparrowhawk had chicks too.

Imagine a woman who wants to have children. She goes out to a bar and picks up a man. He takes her back to his house, where they have sex. Afterwards she kills him, takes over his house and steals all his money to bring up the resulting child. Unacceptable behaviour for a human, but the way of the world for a spider. So different species have different ethical obligations dependent on what it is to be a member of that species.

We have to be careful when we project a human ethical sense onto an animal. The sense of gratitude displayed by a cat can be pretty flakey. I once saw our pet cat sitting outside in the snow looking very miserable. I opened the back door and let her in, whereupon she went straight into our lounge and pooed on the carpet!

The author talks about sliding scale ethical obligations based on a form of phylogenetic classification, which for him fits neatly in some form of order of sentience. Although cephalopods were mentioned as a possible exception I did feel unease at the emphasis on being a vertebrate. Was this the fabled “moral backbone”?

I feel that human capacity for empathy leads to how we feel we should treat other beings, human and non-human. Philosopher, Peter Singer talks about humans having a expanding moral circle of the level of obligation that we feel we need to give. Our family are usually at the centre, our neighbours or members of a social grouping perhaps next? Other layers are defined by different things for different people, race, nationality, religion until at some point another person is no longer part of “Us” to whom we have an obligation, but is part of “Them” to whom we are antagonistic.
This circle often extends to members of other species, particularly in the case of pets. Often someone’s circle will include their own pet, before “Them” groups of their own species. The tentatively put argument that recognising animal rights is a precursor to recognising human rights doesn’t stack up. Here I drag out the old “Hitler was a vegetarian” trope.

It is noted that some creatures can display a circle that includes humans (Dogs and Dolphins will sometimes try to help humans in distress).

When I was a small child, my circle extended to anything that looked like a vertabrate animal. I refused to eat chocolates in the shape of animals, or eat gingerbread men. But, that circle does not extend to all individual creatures. The case of molluscs is particularly interesting to me. As a gardener I have a passionate hatred of slugs. I also find them aesthetically repulsive. I spread nematode worms, who kill the slugs in the most awful way possible ( think how John Hurt died in “Alien” ), instead of putting down slug pellets that will harm hedgehogs. I was particularly disgusted to see an injured slug turn round one day and begin to eat it’s own exposed intestines. The apparent lack of a sense of self in that animal seemed particularly alien to me. This lack of empathy with molluscs extended all the way up to squid and octopus, until I started to become aware of the level of intelligence and even “personality” that these display. Suddenly there was intellectual empathy, although I still find them physically repulsive. Anyway, squid is definitely off my menu now.

The authors circle seemed to stop at individual creatures, and didn’t encompass entire species, an eco-system or even the entire biosphere. I found his arguments against trying to prevent extinctions weak in this respect. Nature is utilitarian, and doesn’t care about the individual. The author and I are empathic towards individuals, but without nature there would be no individuals. Perhaps reducing un-necessary suffering is the best we can try to do. Our very existence on this planet is at the expense of suffering of other creatures, either directly or indirectly.

A final dilemma which you might want to discuss in the group. Some game parks in Africa are granting extremely expensive licences to hunters, to shoot endangered species, to fund the species protection for those species. Personally I cannot resolve what I feel about this one, short of being prepared to pay for a licence to shoot the hunters!

message 3: by Stockton (new)

Stockton Libraries | 87 comments I agree this was a well-structured and accessible introduction, despite the acknowledged bias which also aligns somewhat with my own. The opening chapter outlining the moral positions concerning animal rights was dense and lengthy but provided a solid framework to examine the more tangible issues such as meat eating, experimentation, pets and zoos.

The difficulty as I see it are the practicalities of extending a moral framework to something (someone?) who does not have a comparable moral framework themselves. As pointed out in the book, appeals to moral agency and reciprocity fail at an individual level, but how is this achieved at a societal level? When the system in which we live is one where in order for something to live, something else has to die. More or less.

I do find the definition of veganism useful here - a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. This could give enough wriggle room to be useless, but “as far as is possible and practicable” seems to me a perfectly valid approach to living with other animals. A simple, possibly simplistic, approach. If we have the choice to kill something or not kill something, let’s generally go for the not killing option where we can.

There are many people who would strongly disagree with DeGrazia’s contention that that eating animals is not essential for human health and well being, that plants and “carbs” are the enemy. Also, there is the view that a meat heavy diet results in fewer animal deaths when deaths of field animals are considered. This is of course disputed and definitive numbers are difficult to come by. However, having a system in place where animals that feel pain and suffer are literally stock to be consumed cannot operate alongside claims to be a compassionate, empathetic and understanding species. Once humanity has figured that one out it can work on the next set of problems.

The canned hunting example is an interesting one. I’m definitely no expert but have read conflicting accounts of how useful it is in terms of conservation (if at all) – but the emotions it brings out are extreme and hugely contradictory. Some humans delight in killing an animal and displaying their handiwork, while others are repulsed and enraged by this act despite many of these people buying and eating other dead animals. I can only conclude that we humans are a pretty odd bunch.

From Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens:

Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.

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