Is a Pet-free World Morally Required?

Spencer Lo

Gary Francione argues that it is, even under the most ideal scenario. I find myself disagreeing with Francione on this one—or at least am very resistant to his conclusion. On his view, even if we could “guarantee” that animals under our care will have loving homes and lead great lives, domestication would still be morally problematic: that’s because they are entirely dependent on us, and producing creatures for companionship who are in effect like human children—and who will remain so until they die—is inherently wrong. [And note: in Francione’s hypothetical scenario, pets would no longer be property, and thus not mere things under the law.]

Further down in the article, Francione observes that his “abstract argument” would not likely resonate with people who find it acceptable to kill and eat animals. Quite true. But I think his argument would not likely move many who reject, on moral grounds, the practice of killing and eating animals, because the two situations are vastly different: the numerous excellent reasons for opposing systematic brutality and torture simply do not apply in the case of pet animals (especially if they are not considered property) In other words, if the domestication of pet animals is unjustified, it would have to be unjustified for a very different reason than why eating meat is unjustified. Thus, contrary to Francione, I think his argument is unlikely to resonate not because most people are okay with using animals for food (although that may be part of it too), but because there is little (if any) similarity between his “abstract argument” and the arguments against using animals for food.

My main problem with Francione’s argument is that considerations of the positive consequences to animals are given virtually no weight. In particular, the fact that domesticated animals would lead great lives, and presumably far better lives than if they lived in the wild, does nothing to affect the moral status of domestication: it’s still wrong (even in his hypothetical) despite the overall good consequences for both humans and nonhumans. Achieving the non-existence of entire species of animals is thus morally required. To me, this argument pays little regard to the interests and well-being of animals, and any plausible moral argument against the use of animals (like arguments against factory farming) must take those considerations into account. Francione does not appear to do that here.

Instead, Francione finds the inherent dependency-relationship created by domestication wrong in itself, even though it parallels the dependency-relationship with human children. The key difference, he claims, is that in the case of children, the overwhelming number of the­m “mature to become autonomous, independent beings.” But suppose you could know in advance that, if you were to have children, they would not “mature to become autonomous, independent beings”—though there is every prospect of them having happy and fulfilling lives (however dependent they are). Would it be wrong to have children? I don’t see how, though on Francione’s view, it would be. (I suspect people’s intuitions may differ widely on this question.)

Underlying Francione’s view is the belief that using dependent animals, for whatever purpose, is inherently objectionable. [See here: “The theory that I explore in Animals as Persons is that we have no business exploiting sentient nonhumans irrespective of how we treat them.”] But surely, there is a world of difference between using animals for companionship purposes (and allowing them to use us), in which our relationship to them is sustained by loving care, respect, compassion, and mutual benefit (remember, in Francione’s hypothetical, pets aren’t property), and using animals for exploitative purposes, in which our relationship to them is sustained by ignoring their interests and well-being. The former use does not strike me as “exploitative,” or at least not in any objectionable way. Moreover, the fact of dependency isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the alternative of independence would likely result in disastrous consequences.

Ultimately, my disagreement with Francione comes down to how much the positive consequences matter—I think they make all the difference, whereas for Francione, if I understand him correctly, they carry virtually no weight.  In an ideal universe where animals would prosper (albeit dependently), I think domestication is morally permissible; it’s hard to see how the opposite could be true.

52 Responses

  1. I’m with both Gary and you Spencer, in believing that animals should — and one day will — be freed from society-imposed laws that classify them as the property of humans.

    I’m with you alone, Spencer, when it comes to the desirable future of domesticated animals. I don’t see the ideal human/non-human companionship as a relationship built on coercion or dependence, but rather based on mutual affection, protection, altruistic giving, loyalty, respect, caring, compassion. In two words: selfless love.

    In my view, it is natural for humans and non-humans to want to share both physical space and emotional bonds. And I think these ties help us all — humans and other-than-humans alike — to develop morally and spiritually. To me, inter-species friendships are an essential aspect of spiritual evolution, an indispensable component of peace on earth.

    Take the hardened prison inmate whose heart has shut down — seemingly permanently. Pair him with a shelter dog whose trust in the human race has been damaged, seemingly beyond repair. Voila: what emerges, as we have seen in countless television documentaries, is a team of two totally transformed individuals who have learned from one another how to trust, how to care, how to respect, how to get along with others — all of these emotions often brand-new, never experienced by either of them. Proof that the human has learned how to love compassionately, unselfishly, unconditionally, lies in the fact that he has to relinquish his new best friend to a family when the dog has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for a permanent home.

    But my ideal world doesn’t stop at today’s “domesticated” animals. I envision a peaceable kingdom (see Isaiah 11) in which free-living individuals of all species live side by side without fear of one another or a desire or need to eat one another — and with empathy for one another, an impulse to protect one another, and the same level of respect and trust that exist between inter-species housemates.

    As to whether there will be or should be nature-controlled propagation among domesticated animals (once abusing and neglecting and dumping and killing them has become a thing of the past), I do not know. My trust in a higher power leads me to believe that there is a good plan, place, and purpose for each of us, and we will know the details when we need to — and are spiritually equipped and prepared to receive them.

  2. I must agree with Francione and Newkirk unless the relationship between humans and animals can be redefined based upon an ability to comprehend and communicate. Something along the lines of the early cave people wolf postulated relationship at the point of coequal contact and collaborative hunting but before domestication of wolves may work. I disagree with Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto and Coren’s writings on the new work of dogs. Much of the previous comment sounded like an elaborate apologia for a necessarily unequal relationship. Maybe the better solution is parity

  3. I have to agree with Gary Francione on this one, and here is why. As long as there are pets, there will be those who keep these pets as long as it is convenient to do so, and then they will dump the now undesirables. That is how people like me and my better half end up taking care of 27 furry companions (and no, we are not hoarders; thankfully we make enough money to afford high quality foods and medical care for all of them), Do I wish that people would change and become responsible caretakers of their nonhuman companions? Sure, but I am a scientist and therefore go by facts and not wishful thinking. Reality is that many humans are irresponsible; reality is that 3-4 millions perfectly healthy nonhuman animals are murdered in shelters each year; reality is that dog fighting–even though illegal–is going on in all 50 states; need I go on? Do I think humans will change in this regard? Sorry, I am too old for blindly believing in the good in everyone. Further, my eyes perceive a different story.

  4. your perception is for first and second world countries. third world countries have a different perception on the matter, and that is, they domesticate animals for food

  5. Spencer, I want to question one part of your post. You write, “there is a world of difference between using animals for companionship purposes. . . in which our relationship to them is sustained by loving care, respect, compassion, and mutual benefit. . . and using animals for exploitative purposes, in which our relationship to them is sustained by ignoring their interests and well-being.”

    Does this philosophy then permit animal exploitation if that exploitation is done in a manner that is loving and respectful, or would you reject all non-companion animal relationships as impermissibly exploitive? It’s a question I’m not sure I can answer, and since you set up the comparison, I’m interested in what your take is.

  6. […] Or, as Spencer Lo asks, is a pet-free world required? Share this:StumbleUponDiggEmailRedditTwitterFacebookLike this:Like2 bloggers like […]

  7. John, I don’t get why you see my comment as “an elaborate apologia for a necessarily unequal relationship.” I see parity in it. Could you please explain why you don’t?

  8. It’s impossible to guarantee pets would have the same protections as human children. For one reason, it would require social and veterinary systems that would be just as costly as those appropriated for human needs, which are continually under threat of being reduced, if not dissolved completely. Granted, it would be minus a system of education, but even if it were “do-able”, tax payers who are unwilling to pay for humans in need would be even less inclined to pay for nonhumans.

    I agree with Francione about the wrongfulness of domestication — it was wrong to commodify conscious living beings into being perpetual dependents and designate them as our objects of property.

    While Francione makes no such claim, I think Rene Girard is correct with regard to the domestication of animals, although I disagree with Girard in other areas. According to Girard, the domestication of animals is an outgrowth of keeping a collection of animals that hunter-gatherers intended to use for ritual sacrifice.

    I think wolves probably scavenged off human garbage because we hunted the same animals wolves depended on for survival. So in other words, hungry wolves were always at a disadvantage, and dogs remain so today. Cats seem to have retained their hunting ability better than dogs did, but they remain at a disadvantage in human society. Among the millions of healthy or treatable animals killed each year, there are more cats than dogs.

  9. In a word, no. There is no moral requirement for any such idea.

    The questions and issues are of specific instance — the individual owner’s treatment of his or her pets.

    There is no question or issue of general principle here for me.

  10. Hal, you acknowledge on another thread that not all owners are well intentioned. Do you honestly not see why it’s wrong to breed sentient beings into a perpetual state of dependence and deny their rights?

  11. Phoebe, I think it’s a question of whether there are alternatives to animal consumption. People living in third world countries are not as likely to have them — but as long as nutritious plant foods are available, or can be made available, then animal consumption causes gratuitous harm.

  12. Ellie,

    Animals don’t, and can’t have “rights” in any sense that we could conceive them — or that we might grant for ourselves and to each other.

    In my opinion, and from my point of view, to suggest they do is trying to bridge an insurmountable gap of difference in kind.

    There is no inherent wrong of general principle in us, as higher sapient beings, keeping animals, as lower sentient beings, in domestication as pets.

    When treated well, they most certainly do not suffer because of the resulting state of dependance. Indeed, they reap untold rewards from being in a state of carefree safety, the likes of which no wild animal could ever hope for.

    When treated poorly — I repeat, simply vigorously apply existing animal cruelty statutes, there is no need for any new laws.

    And, probably far more effective in the long run, encourage the social stigma and shame toward those who wantonly harm innocent, helpless creatures.

  13. An interesting post, well-argued and pithy, but the thesis Francione advances is senselessly artifical. Considerations of pet ownership should be grounded in a grim little thing called the empirical world, not in airy hypotheticals. In the world of actual experience, ‘pets’ (odious word–useful shorthand) will never, as a group, experience anything remotely approaching an ‘ideal scenario’. Many wll be forced to lead lives of uninterrupted suffering.

    I don’t know the ratio of happy to wretched pets, and suspect that any statistics on the subject are conjectural. What can be stated with absolute certainty, however, is that an appallingly high number are now and always will be condemned to utter misery; a rudimentary knowledge of human nature is more than enough to support the view that as things have been, they will remain. And from any perspective of minimal ethical seriousness, it quickly becomes apparent that the exact numbers don’t greatly affect the outcome of the moral argument. More important is how we reckon the relative significance of pleasure and pain.

    Suffering, especially extreme suffering, which is bound to be rampant among human-controlled animals, carries an infinite negative value. A dram of it enormously outweighs any amount of passable contentedness. Thus, if we are to think in terms of unqualified opposites –existence for a whole pet species or extinction–the latter, effected through sterilization, must be seen by all true pet-lovers as the only ‘ideal scenario’ worth envisioning. Yes, extinction-through-sterilization is unrealistic, but not, I would maintian, as grotesquely divorced from reality as the utopian fantasy of universally happy pets.

    Is the counterfactual Francione poses just a five-finger exercise? Is it a necessary corollary of his overall theory of animal rights? An argumentitive device? As one who has read and admired some of his articles but none of his books, I can’t undertake to judge. If anything, Lo’s piece reminds me that it’s time to start reading. Ths much I’ll venture: thought experiments, even when given extravagant shapes, are often a useful part of moral reasoning. This one, taken on its own merits and without reference to any larger philosophical framework Francione may be trying to contrive, seems singularly redundant.

  14. I think animals should not have rights, but this is stupid

  15. Hal, humans (i.e., bi-pedal primates) and other animals have a moral right to belong to themselves — and it corresponds that we have no right to control them. With the right of self ownership comes respect for personal interests, both ours and theirs. And while we acknowledge conditions wherein moral rights must be violated, such as in abject survival or true self defense, that doesn’t transform the violation into a moral act.

    To paraphrase what Charles Darwin said about the difference between humans and other animals, ‘it’s a difference of degree, not kind’. By our so-called measure of “intelligence”, nonhumans have less than we do, but they are not lower sentient beings, by any means. What we can only try to deduce with our brains, they comprehend through their senses. Beyond that, they suffer physically and emotionally as much as we do.

    Existing laws allow the killing of millions of dogs and cats for our convenience — they are not just inadequate, they are highly destructive.

  16. Joe, I agree with most of what you’re saying, but as I understand Francione’s philosophy, he objects to domestication because in breeding them as perpetual dependents, nonhumans are vulnerable to the suffering so often imposed by those who own them.

  17. To add another thought here, it’s not enough to say pet ownership is ok if dogs or cats get “good homes”. We need to consider the all too common reality that these homes are really not so “good” after all, and that for one reason or another, these “good homes” are no longer available. Then what? Then “good owners” can have them killed by private vets; or take them to “shelters” where they will likely get killed; or dump them somewhere when no one else is looking. This is the reality of pet ownership.

  18. Ellie,

    An appeal to the supposed authority of Darwin won’t help the case for the proposal that humans and animals differ only in degree, not kind. In my opinion, that idea simply won’t stand up to honest scrutiny. Darwin might have had some insights into human biology, but, clearly, he was a veritable dunce regarding true human existence, if that’s indeed what he thought.

    Here, we will probably have to accept a fundamental and essentially intractable disagreement.

    I see a distinction between sapience and sentience. Animals have sentience, but not sapience. Only humans do. And also, I consider human beings to be far more than merely their physical biology. If you wish to consider us nothing more than “bi-pedal primates” blessed perhaps with a greater degree of essentially animal intelligence — and nothing more — then feel free to do so.

    I, however, find that notion to be shallow and deliberately ignorant — even of the true nature of one’s own self. And, again, I think it illustrates my points about “animal rights” being as much about de-valuing humans as it is about anything else. Saying, and thinking, “I am an animal” isn’t humility, IMO — it’s delusional and destructive self-effacement, and smacks on the macro level of outright misanthropy.

    Therefore, I can’t accept any notion that animals be held in the same moral regard as human beings, or afforded “rights” in anything resembling the context that we would consider them for human beings.

    Past that, we can agree there is moral/ethical wrong in deliberate cruelty toward, or neglect of, domesticated animals.

    The solutions might be just as complex as the problem itself is.

  19. Ellie,

    I think you and I ( and for that matter, Francione) agree on what really matters, namely, that we should sterilize as many domestic animals as we possibly can, and that the highest good in this context would be the disappearance of pets as an institution. My quibble with Francione is that he expressly removes from consideration the problem of pet suffering–a problem we all recognize is unresolvable. Presumably, he wants to articulate an ironclad principle unblurred by disagreements over the practicalities of actual experience. This may well be a fruitful exercise against the larger backdrop of his theory of rights, but as a self-contained proposition it struck me as needlessly abstract. One can easily arrive at the desired conclusion without positing anything as phantasmal as his ‘ideal scenario’

  20. Accept what you want, Hal. I find your opinion speciesist, ignorant, and illogical.

  21. Ellie, of course you don’t like my views. They run counter an ideology you apparently think has merit. I see no merit in it.

    Hence, there will be an intractable difference of views between us.

    However, we both seem to agree, the abuse or neglect of domesticated pet animals is wrong.

  22. Joe, I agree with you that moral consideration must include the inherent suffering in the pet keeping system, as well as the admission that it’s unresolvable. Unfortunately, I think animal welfarists are not inclined to do this.

    I also wonder if Francione was asked about the ideal scenario, and that was his reason for discussing it (?).

  23. HAL,

    Ellie’s reference to Darwin is actually spot-on. Evolutionary science informs us that human and nonhuman animals are part of a single continuum–a fact which would be even more apparent if the many colorful species intermediate between chimps and humans had been a little more adaptive. In a very real sense, we are just one piece of flotsam in a monistic ecological soup.

    As in the past, your comments rest on a cluster of fallacies so tightly packed that a hand more skillful than mine would be needed to unravel and parse them all. Still, at the cost of repeating much that was said in our previous exchanges, I’ll give it the old college try.

    One faculty that does characterize most, though not all, adult members of the human species is that of moral reasoning. Such reasoning must show its mettle by satisfying a good number of requirements. These requirements are tough as nails. Mushiness, however deeply felt, won’t answer.

    Moral thought must, to start with, be wholly secular(1). You are free, it is true, to indulge in an unlimited number of beliefs that may loosely be classified as religious or ‘spiritual’. You can, in some modern societies, do all sorts of things which such beliefs, even idiosyncratic ones–extol them in poetry, both experimental and traditional; worship them in shrines or totems decorated to your specifications; heartily proselytize in pubs or on street corners. OTOH, you cannot, on pain of being charged with inanity, adduce such convictions as the foundation of the kinds of ethical principles that are the very substance of serious debates on public morality. Your ‘spiritual’ views may be lofty and inspiring, but they are a purely private matter. However strong the appeal of this or that religiose confection, as a debater, I must put it aside and become a strictly uncompromising naturalist. More crucial than even Darwin, in this respect, is the tutelary ghost of someone like J.S. Mill, not because of the content of his writings, but as an emblem of the secularism which is the price of entry to any self-respecting debating society.

    But the requirements don’t stop there. To qualify as *ethical*, a principle must achieve disinterestedness (2). Bald assertions of selfish advantage, advanced on behalf of groups or individuals, are by their nature sub-ethical. So too are all arbitrary (3) and dogmatic(4) pronouncements. (Both 3 and 4 are of course intimately bound to 1). Nor do internally inconsistent ideas fare any better(5).

    From what I’ve seen, you’ve tried to plump for human supremacy in 2 slightly different ways. In the past, if memory serves, you simply affirmed that the species boundary has a unique and inherent moral significance. Privileges extended to all members of the human species but no one else need not be justified by reference to any other characteristic its members may posses. To be human was glory enough. For allegedly self-evident reasons vaguely connected to elk, or buffaloes, or maybe it was moose, you further declared that the line between species was of a different moral order from those separating humans into races and genders. This, of course, is about as unmitigated a statement of in-group egoism as one is likely to find in polite society. Being utterly interested, arbitrary, and dogmatic, it displays in one neat package all the deadly sins with which an ostensibly ethical assertion can be infected.

    Now, it seems, you’ve condescended to offer a justification for your depreciation of nonhumans which looks beyond mere species membership. Apparently, it has to do with an ennobling trait you’ve chosen to call sapience. Whatever you mean to convey by this less than lucid term, and however you define it, you may be sure that it cuts a pretty lamentable figure. a)The first hurdle you have to climb, with sapience on your back, is to demonstrate–yes demonstrate, not decree–in what way sapience determines moral status. Put another way, you must convincingly show why it’s morally worse for me to inflict harm on a being who has sapience than on one who doesn’t. Put still another way, wherein lies its moral relevance? (b)At the same time, to meet criteria 2,3,4, and 5 , and to avoid collapsing back into rank ingroup egoism, you must pass the test posed by the ‘argument from marginal cases’. For surely, there are many humans sadly devoid of the radiant light of sapience. Unless, that is, sapience is an ethereal ‘spiritual’ quality with which all humans are mysteriously anointed, in which case it has no place in our debate.

    May I end with a heartfelt exhortation? Reasoners must be unfettered. They not only can, but must, subject all received wisdom to unsparing scrutiny. Every sacrosanct notion must be examined, interrogated, challenged. Not one second need be wasted in showing any particular deference to prevailing customs, or public opinion, or immemorial prejudices. The terrible and withering question ‘Why?’ must ceaselessly preside over ethical discussions like a conceptual winnowing fan, separating wheat from chaff. Lay aside your musty dogmas for a week or so and try to adopt a mindset of rational inquiry. You might just find it invigorating.

  24. Joe,
    Despite your verbose effort, and impressive vocabulary, all you’ve essentially said, is, one must accept as axiomatic some things you hold, because of your ideology, to be foregone conclusions — before one can even address the issue.

    Once again, as I think I’ve previously pointed out you, it’s essentially no different than a King James Version Biblical literalist insisting there can be no reality of measure of the truth outside of a literal interpretation of the KJV Bible. In other words, your ideas run around on a closed loop.

    Morality HAS to be secular? Says who… you? Again, this is like the afore-mentioned literalist saying, “I want to discuss issue X. But before we even begin, I reject all “non-Biblical” (in other words, non KJV literalist) ideas or arguments as automatically false and baseless.”

    And then you have the gall to turn around, and suggest others (in this case me) are simply declaring things to be true? That they are merely following tradition, or blindly imitating the ideas of others?

    Joe, self-determination and an empirical investigation and study of reality are at the very core of the values I embrace. How is an appeal to Darwin’s authority any different to an appeal to the Pope’s?

    Again, as I see it, Darwin made some vital observations regarding the biology of human beings as a physical species. But regarding the essence of what a human being is, he apparently was a complete dunce.

    Once again, if you wish to define human beings only by our biology, and only one in an array of animals — none essentially of any more value than the others — then by all means, be my guest.

    But, I see that clearly as merely what I’ve mentioned before, less an appreciation of animals, and more simply a dragging down of human beings. That isn’t humility or honesty of any sort. It’s merely and essentially a sharply negative de-valuing and denial. To what end, what good could such an outlook ultimately lead?

    And, I think, it reflects a deep and willful ignorance, even of one’s own true self or existence. Honest self-reflection should be enough to clearly reveal to you, the essential difference in kind — not degree — between a human being (in terms of capacity) and an animal.

    Do you even realize who, and what, you are — or have the potential to be?

    Perhaps turn your lofty standards of an independent investigation of the truth upon your own assumptions. And then, get back to me about invigoration, and the liberation of the mind from notions or imaginings that might shackle it.

    Reflect on this: No idea.. again, NO idea, is more important than any human being. Ideas and ideals exist to serve us, not the other way around.

  25. A factor Francione tends to ignore is individual choice- by animals, especially dogs- to live with people. If we are to consider animals as subjects, THEIR choice to live with who they want should be respected. So even in a hypothetical scenario where the status of domesticated animals is not of property, there would still be those animals who would choose to live with people, especially dogs, by virtue of such a long history of co-evolution and co-socialization. This can be easily observed when free-roaming dogs in countries like mine chose to live with street dwellers, and one would be cynical and reductionist to imply that the only thing going on there is necessarily reduced to getting food scraps.

    Oh, and to protaciojr, I live in what people call a third country world and your generalization makes no sense whatsoever. In every contemporary country in the world there are animals being kept as “pets” and others being kept as “food”, all of which are domesticated.

  26. Simone, I think dogs and humans are certainly capable of a mutual friendship, but homeless dogs and humans would seem to be co-dependent; and if they want to survive, do they really have a choice?

  27. Ellie,

    I can see truth points both you and Simone just raised regarding street dogs and people.

    I agree with you, there might be a level of mutual need playing a part.

    However, I also agree with Simone — I think there is a significant element of choice at play.

    Newly-weaned puppies bonding with the first person who picks them up is one thing. But in the case of grown dogs, one has to gain the dog’s trust.

  28. Hal, do you really not see the difference between Darwin and the Pope? Granted, the Vatican now has an excellent science center, and the Church accepts evoluton, but unlike Darwin, the Pope is not a scientist.

    So what do you think humans are beyond our biology? If you’re refering to our ability to think, that doesn’t distinguish us from other animals, and for that matter, to date we’ve been unable to separate thought process from biolgical life. So they may well be inseparable.

    If you’re thinking humans have an immortal soul, fine — but that’s a belief and only a belief — not a fact or even a theory that distinguishes us from other animals. Speaking of the Pope, he said animals also have souls, but that too is based on belief, not science.

    I subscribe to the universal moral tenet of treating others as we want to be treated, that prohibits causing gratuitious harm. Both principles are based on empathy,which also evolved in many nonhumans animals. Unfortunately, much of religion violates this tenet because it’s based on cultural acceptance and tradition. For example, the bible condones slavery, and in one chapter, God supposedly commanded genocide. And what it says about animals seems to me to be based on the is/ought fallacy.

    If you’re saying human abilities qualify rights, then humans who lack these abilities should not be entitled to the rights average humans have, which I trust you’ll agree is nonsense. In fact, some nonhumans have more cognitive ability and empathy than some humans do. If you’re not willing to deny rights to humans who lack these abilties, then you can’t use the assumed lack of ability in nonhuman animals to deny them rights.

    Why do nonhumans beings have rights? For the same reasons we do — because like us, they have at least elementary self awareness, and in addtion to physical experience, many also experience emotions
    — hence like us, they have personal interests we are morally obliged to respect, with rare exception.

  29. Hal, I just saw your response to what Simone and I said about street dogs. I think there is some discernment involved on the part of both dogs and human street dwellers. Both involve trust, and I think each depends on the other for survival.

  30. HAL,

    I thought I was performing a useful service by offering you a primer in ethics. I thought–alas, how naive one continues to be, despite bitter experience–that the criteria I set forth were plain enough for anyone to understand. Your addled response indicates that further simplification is needed.

    The condition of secularity is not a dogma but its antithesis. It applies to participants in debates on moral conduct, not to what one may do in the private sphere. To repeat: in your private life, you may pursue any course of spiritual self-realization you fancy, provided that you don’t overstep principles developed through dispassionate moral reasoning. For example, the next time you can buttonhole an unwary neighbour, tell them all the really cool ways in which you think you’ve transcended mere biology and hold forth on the great and many splendours of your true self.

    The secularity requirement instructs us that if we seek admission to the public sphere, our ‘spiritual’ beliefs, whether derived from a sacred text or our own sublime intuitions, must be left at the door, together with our galoshes and umbrellas. The necessity for secularity will be clear to most folks but has escaped you. A spiritual conviction is anything and everything I find stirring in the luminous depths of my spirit. Whoever says spiritual says dogma, and dogmas, by definition, are unarguable. They are susceptible neither to rational proof nor disconfirmation. As such, whatever value they have is purely and absolutely subjective. In one sense, then, your posts have been exemplary. For in your failure to provide anything recognizable as a logical argument, you’ve succeeded in demonstrating the sterility of your own strain of speciesist dogmatism. More: you have even failed to address the argumnts I’ve put forward, in the simplest way I could, although these have the prima facie effect of obliterating the speciest position root-and-branch. The irony of having you, a dogmatist, equating me, a rationalist, with a biblical literalist, is palplable and gross.

    A second irony permeates your comments. I began by pointing out that one mark of difference between human and nonhuman animals is that we possess the faculty of moral reasoning. Your blank assertions of human supremacy, by their very irrationality, are deliciously self-negating. You reduce the distance that separates you from other animals in the very process of affirming it.

    Your homework for today is to consider the following; it may help rouse you from your dogmatic slumber. You profess a great concern for human life. Very well. Suppose you’re living back in 1750 and you’ve been entrusted with the task of formulating arguments for an abolitionst society. The whole weight of law, custom, ‘common sense’ and history is agaist you. So is the reigning ‘spirituality’. So too, for that matter, is philisophy: no less a figure than the revered John Locke, , the brightest and most infuential light in the intellectual firmanment, avers that black skin is so repellent that it is almost a sufficient reason not to classify its bearers as human. Emotively asserting that all humans should be treated equally without elaborating a clear and convincing theortical underpinning for your claims will earn only scorn and derision. To have any credibilty, your argument must be guided by rigorous logic. In order not to be self-refuting, your argument must also avoid mirroring whatever ethical travesties you deplore in the views of your opponents.

    I think you’ll find that your abolitionist statement will have to respect all the criteria I laid down in my previous post. Having come this far, you’ll then have to explain in what ways your speciesist outlook satisfies these criteria. Good luck. Hint: if you want a good place to crib your abolitionist manifesto, try looking up Lincoln. Characteristically, it was he who did it best and most pithily. What is embarrassing for speciesists is that L uses the fundamental equality principle, which doesn’t mean what you think it does.

    Understanding the equality principle should help you understand the difference between a dogma and a premise. All arguments have premises. That doesn’t mean that all arguments are dogmatic or that all are equal. The premise of the animal rights argument is the equality principle, ie, there must be no difference in moral status without a corresponding and morally relevant difference in traits. The equality principle doesn’t begin by declaring that all people or all animals should be treated equally. If it did that, it wouldn’t be of much use against the oppression of either humans or nonhumans. It asks us to look at the world with biases of any kind. It places the burden of justification on the prononents of discrimination. In short, the equality principle doesn’t prejudge the question of how we ought to think of nonhuman animals. Only speciesists do that.

  31. Joe,
    Once again, all your verbose attempts at chastisement prove is, you expect others to subscribe to your ideology, and don’t accept the credibility of any thought that might run counter to it.

    You’re wrong, that one simply has to abandon any spiritual/religious beliefs in order to participate in any credible debate.

    Be that as it may, good luck finding even many atheists to agree, for example, that a dog hold the same moral or legal standing as their child.

    But beyond that, you suggest the, laughable, proposition, that while everybody else abandon any underlying spiritual or religious notions they might have in order to participate in your kangaroo court of ethics, we all have to dance to the tune of your ideology. Which, itself, is held with religious zeal.

    You don’t get it. I’m not interested in playing your game by your rules.
    I expect, not many people are. Subjectivity and dogma? Try looking in the mirror first, before leveling that charge at others.

    Also, nice try — trying to equate the struggle to free slaves with the current bizarre suggestion that animals hold the same moral consideration as human beings. As I think I’ve pointed out to you before — that’s first, simply a desperate attempt to grab credibility. Secondly, it’s a pale attempt at rhetorical indictment of any view that dares to question the underpinnings of your ideology. “Don’t agree with us? Well, by golly, you’re thinking just like those racists did.”

    Most highly rhetorical viewpoints only mis-use words, or try to claim sole ownership of them. For example, the latest far-right wing movement, the Tea Party, likes to use the term “patriotism” as often and as blatantly as possible. The message isn’t that difficult to decode. “If we’re the patriots… what does that make everybody else?”

    Animal rights took this trick even a step further.

    Of course, the ideology does pull the old stunt of trying to claim ownership of terms — “compassion,” for example.

    But to add to it, animal rights went so far as to invent a new term, “speciesist” — which I see you’re trying to employ.

    Again, nice try, but also incredibly easy to see through.

  32. Ellie, careful how you use the term “belief.”

    Many of the things you suggest, rest exactly and precisely on that.

    I’m not disputing the facts of, say, biology and evolution.

    Merely the conclusions some draw from them. Which, again, amount to nothing more than beliefs — and poorly supported ones at that.

    If you wish to believe your essence, you mind and all that make you human is merely the accidental product of biological function, then by all means, be my guest. But don’t expect me to accept such a notion as fact. It seems far more likely and reasonable, for example, to conclude the brain facilitates or helps manifest these things, instead of causing them. Trying to equate, or perhaps mistaking, mechanism for cause is a classic flaw of materialism — itself a belief system, upon which you seem to rest many of your ideas.

    If you wish to hold animals in the same esteem as yourself, then knock yourself out. I’m all for freedom of thought, and self determination.

    I see such notions as completely irrational, and perhaps more importantly, unnecessary. I don’t need to regard my dogs as moral equals, or equals of kind, in order to treat them with respect, kindness and see to it that all their needs are met.

  33. Has HAL 9000 actually proposed what their alternative view of the nature and design of human existence is yet?

    I am waiting to hear it.

  34. Hal, the brain is a biological organ, and there’s no evidence (to date)that thought process can exist beyond the brain of a living being — but even if (as you said) “the brain facilitates or helps manifest these things”, that wouldn’t set humans apart from other animals.

    You haven’t explained (as requested) what you think humans are beyond their biology that supposedly makes us so special. Perhaps, your need to believe humans are special is the reason you’re projecting belief systems onto others — but animal rights is a moral philosophy that neither rests on belief or the theory of evolution. .

  35. Ellie,
    Projecting your beliefs on others is exactly what you’re doing. Again, if you wish to view yourself as essentially an accident of biology, and merely an animal, be my guest.

    What “evidence” are you waiting for, that your ability to think, and reason, is something beyond the process of that squishy organ in your head? I must again note, even asking such a question strikes me as reflecting a profound ignorance of one’s own self.

    While my ideas might seem “without evidence” to you — your conclusions strike me as incredibly lazy, and accepting without question of the supposed authority of others.

    I’m not here to evangelize you to my point of view. I doubt there’s an argument I could present that you would find satisfactory. Again, about all I can do is encourage starting with a vigorous self-reflection, free of any preconceived notions.

    In turn, I would ask, you quit wasting effort trying to evangelize me.

    You may also scorn others all you wish for not living up to what you consider proper moral standards. I’m all for free expression, even if I don’t agree with what’s being expressed.

    I, in turn, am perfectly free to reject those ideas, and live as I see fit, because I see no moral value in regarding human beings as mere beasts, or beasts as having the same value as human beings.

    All this philosophical pontification has nothing to do with the practical, day-to-day process and procedure of being kind to an properly caring for a pet animal. Whether one regards that animal as an essential moral equal is beside the point.

    It reminds me of the Buddha’s parable, about hair-splitting over the details of the type and origin of an arrow that has struck a man — rather than focusing on taking care of the wounded man.

  36. OK, again, Mr. Buddhist Hunter … cut to the chase.

    What are human beings if we are not animals and a product of evolution?

    The world is waiting …

  37. Hal, in order for me to “project my beliefs”, I’d have to imagine that others share my position; but since I’m fully aware that many people disagree with me, I do not project my “beliefs” on anyone. For all I know, some advocates may disagree with me too.

    If anyone is projecting, I think you are projecting your reliance on a belief system onto others. In other words, because your reason for rejecting animal rights is based on your beliefs, you assume my reason for accepting animal rights must be based on my beliefs. Not true — it doesn’t work that way. Again, animal rights is a moral philosophy, not a belief, or a religion, so neither am I evangelizing. If you want to raise a solid argument against animal rights, then you need to prove the philosophy is false. Claiming humans are somehow better, or we inherently deserve more, than other animals doesn’t prove it false.

    Though you haven’t spelled it out, opposition to animal rights is often based on the anthropocentric and arrogant claim that only humans can transcend the physical, and that only we have spirits, because only we were supposedly created in the image of “God”. That’s a comforting thought for humans concerned with their mortality, but comfort doesn’t make it true. More likely, I think this “God” was created in the image of man — and since there’s been some confusion about belief, please note I did not say I believe “God” was created in the image of man — I’m saying that based on the image of “God” described by most religions, I think it’s quite possible it was created by power driven, blood thirsty, jealous, fearful men, who claimed he demanded ritual sacrifice for their own selfish reasons.

    Times have changed. There are many people of faith who do not claim other animals are inferior to us, as you do, and who reject the injustice committed against them.

    So tell us, what do all nonhumans lack that no humans lack? What makes us special?

    This discussion does not just concern kindness and the care of pet animals. It concerns why humans are so disgustingly arrogant as to presume other animals should be bred to accomodate their whims.

  38. […] Or, as Spencer Lo asks, is a pet-free world required? Advocates for Animals, Pets and Companions, Posts Gary L. Francione, […]

  39. On an individual level, the need to believe that we human beings are, by the will of some tribal god, magically “superior” is evidence of a massive inferiority complex.

    The most valuable yardstick for measuring any species, including our own, is its immediate sustainability within its environment and, ultimately, longevity. By both those standards, we human beings have an appalling weak or poor record which should humble us.

    If the tribal god of the Bible was alive today as a person, and someone was to run some psychiatric diagnostics on him, he’d probably be locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane.

    It’s incredible that science and pseudo-intellectualism in the West has been guided over the last by the likes of Descartes for hundreds of years believing animals to be no more than their God’s automatons, literally machines lacking both sensation and self-awareness, and that only man was endowed with a soul.

    Going back to the world of pets, it concerns me greatly that elements of the pet industry are now being guided by human beings how are equally mentally ill and out of control producing animals that are deliberately deformed, for their “cuteness” factor, and helpless.

    Again this suggests to me an inferiority complex within animal exploiters and abusers. Therefore not only do we have jealous, angry, vengeful, irrational human beings creating God’s in their image, they are also creating animals, for whom they can play gods, as their play things.

    From that point of view, perhaps the mentality of the low end of pet breeding and pet hoarding might seem very closely akin … but the barbaric treatment of farmed animals by sub-normal psychopathic humans many levels below that again.

    Eating highly evolved and complex mammals is really not that far from cannibalistic and murderous tendencies that have marred our species history. No other species is as murderous as our own, not even carnivorous predators.

  40. This should not surprise us. Anticruelty laws assume that animals are the property of humans, and it is in this context that the supposed balance of human and animal interests occurs. But as we saw, we cannot really balance the interests of property owners against their property because property cannot have interests that are protectable against the property owner. The humane treatment principle, as applied through animal welfare laws, does nothing more than require that the owners of animal property accord that level of care, and no more, that is necessary to the particular purpose. If we are using animals in experiments, they should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce valid data. If we are using purpose-bred animals to make fur coats, they should receive the level of care, and no more, that is required to produce coats that are soft and shiny. If we are raising animals for food, those animals should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce meat that can be sold at a particular price level to meet a particular demand. If we are using dogs to guard our property, we should provide the level of care that is required to sustain the dog for that purpose. As long as we give the dog the minimal food and water and shelter–a dead dog will not serve the purpose–we can tie that dog on a three-foot leash and we can beat him, even excessively, for “disciplinary” purposes.

  41. HAL,

    Nary a hint of a logical argument to be found in your comments. It seems you prefer emoting to debating.

    To recap: while revelling in human exceptionalism, ya gotta decide if humans are uniquely exalted apart from or because of their attributes. If the former , i.e., if you view species membership alone as somehow determinative of status, consider the following thought experiment (not of my invention).

    Species is a taxonomic category used by biologists, really a matter of DNA. The species-alone folks are therefore committed to settling the moral debate about nonhumans by means a DNA test. To know what place an individual occupies in the the moral sphere, all we must do is send a tissue sample to a reliable lab. If and only if the result comes back ‘human’ can the subject be assigned the highest moral status.

    Now suppose there’s a staggering, paradigm-shifting breakthrough in the science of genetics. All previous genetic thought is shown to have nbeen mistaken and is thus superseded. By the light of the new science, it can definitively be proven that there is no homogeneous human species. The group we’ve thus far described as homogeneously human is in fact a conglomerate. For the second, hitherto undetected species skulking in our midst, scientists devise the term ‘guman’. The error has been so durable cause humans and gumans are indistinguishable in terms of physical and mental attributes, but their genes are revealed to be so utterly different that science declares the 2-species conclusion to be inescapable. Question: if humanness alone confers moral status, must those now revealed to be gumans demoted to a lower moral position? The point ( in case you’ve missed it), is that the concept of humanity viewed independently of human attributes is a contentless –and hence meaningless–category; a hollowed out, Cheshire cat of a fetish, so brittle that, however fervent or hysterical its votaries, it feebly crumbles to the touch. (An old joke says , in response to the tiresome speculation about whether Shakespeare ‘really’ wrote the plays attributed to him: ‘No, it wasn’t Shakespeare, just a person who pretended to be called Shakespeare.)

    Now for the ‘attributes view’, with Lincoln’s help. Writes Lincoln; “If A can prove…that he may by right, enslave B, why may not B snatch the same argument and prove equally that he may enslave A? You say A is white and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule , you are to be the slave of the first man that you meet, with fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color, exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks..Take care again, you are to be the slave of the first man you meet with an intellect superior to yours’.

    See what L’s doing? He relying on what may be called the ‘fundamental equality principle’ (‘fep’), which can be set forth as follows: no moral differences without relevant natural differences. Whenever A’s, whoever they be, and however fatuously convinced of their glory, seek to oppress, instrumentalize or in any way lord it over any set of B’s, the fep obliges the A’s to justify themselves. A’s must list those of their own attributes which they believe justify the vast disparities in moral entitlements they wish to uphold. The relevance of those attributes can then be ‘tested’, as L says, for soundness. One way –L’s way–of doing this, is to ask whether the attribute thus adduced is equally present in all A’s. If some A’s have heaps, and others little or none, the justification for the oppression of B’s inexorably evolves into a argument for the oppression of ‘lesser’ A’s by their more gifted peers. Note that it’s not enough to say: “Dude! We’re A’s, they’re B’s. Surely you don’t have the impudence to propose that A’s are B’s, or, what is even more absurd, that B’s are A’s!’ (Remind you of anyone?) Cause if you do say such a thing, you’re back where yo started supporting the indefensible humanity-alone-is-enough twaddle.

    So here’s where things stand. To oppose intra-human oppression, you must (1) think in terms of the definable, specifiable properties humans have and (2) adopt the fep. Without fep, you can’t fight human inequality. (Try it. You’ll soon see that you’ve eaten the sword you need to fight with.) With it, you’re led by cast-iron logic to the conclusion that nonhumans deserve equal moral consideration. Unless, that is, you can think of a trait that all humans possess, and possess equally, which is relevant to the question of moral status.

    To arrive at the above view, one need not have ANY preconceptions about the value of nonhumans. The logical progression is clear: we (yes that means you to, Hal), hold that proposition X (all humans are morally equal) is true. X vitally depends on premise Y (the fep). Y, barring cogent counterarguments, leads inescapably to Z (equal consideration for nonhumans). If you like X, you must retain Y and adopt Z. If Z is too unpalatable, you must drop Y and abandon X. See? Nice, clear logic, without so much as a trace of ideology. It’s called thinking, an activity I urge you to try on the earliest possible occasion.

    A final word on the secularity condition. Look at it this way. Its rationale is much the same as that of church-state separation. Non-secular, i.e., religious, views are founded on ideas about the sacred and the supernatural. Not only are such views inherently indemonstrable to non-adherents. They are also legion, and–annoyingly, for the non-secular crowd– mutually nullifying. They therefore cancel one another out. What;s more, many such beliefs include the injunction to forcibly suppress all competing ideas. That’s why we don’t have ‘Catholic’ laws, or ‘Hindu’ laws, or laws grounded in the utterances of the Cumaean sibyl, but secular laws, ostensibly based on secular reason or utility, which, as a precondition of their very existence, consign all religious/spiritual beliefs to the private sphere. That’s also why non-secular pronouncements have no standing in moral debates. There may be interesting things to be said on both sides of the abortion and euthanasia debates, for example, but the sillies who first invoke some variety of supernaturalism during these debates should politely be shown the door. The same is true of all ethical debates. (I still don’t know what your ‘spiritual’ beliefs are. I’m sure they’re lovely, but you may be sure that they have no more place in serious ethical discussions than the opinions of the bible fundamentalists you affect to despise.) This is pretty 101 stuff, but I include it cause I always like to give a helping hand to my fellow hominids when I see them floundering.

  42. For Good,

    I heartily with some of what you write. The really smart people who’ve written about the ‘human condition’ have ususally identified the Ixion wheel of pride–insatiable, ravenous, desolating pride–as the mainspring of human behavior, and seen human history as a sombre expression of this malignancy. Contempt for nonhumans, and the accompanying elevation of humans to blazing heights of imaginary greatness, is one appalling result of this rooted tendency, since we seem hardwired to think in binary terms ( no up without a down etc)

    I can’t agree with your ‘most valuable yardstick’. Glorifying success in the evolutionary struggle for existence strikes me as similar to glorifying success within human society. In both cases, scoundrelism may flourish. (Totally of topic, apologies to S Lo.)

  43. Hi Seth,

    You asked: “Does this philosophy then permit animal exploitation if that exploitation is done in a manner that is loving and respectful, or would you reject all non-companion animal relationships as impermissibly exploitive?”

    First I apologize for my long delay in responding. Part of the reason is that I have been busy as of late, but the other part is that I was still deciding where I stood on your question. I have a stance now but it is still evolving.

    To your question, I would first note that the term “exploitation” already implies wrongdoing—at least it has that connotation. If the more neutral term “use” were substituted, then I believe you are asking whether I accept the view often criticized by Francione: that the use of animals is okay so long as we treat them humanely (or respectfully, lovingly, etc). I say ‘yes,’ because it seems to me that in terms of moral significance, “treatment” is primary and “use” is secondary. That is, “treatment” is ultimately what we look at when we consider whether some action involving an animal is right or wrong.

    Now I think Francione would say the opposite—that animal use is the real problem. For him, the view that animal use is okay if accompanied by humane treatment would allow problematic behavior like painlessly killing happily raised animals for food. But this doesn’t seem to follow. “Use” and “treatment” always go together, such that every time we object to some instance of animal “use,” we are *really* objecting to the “treatment” inflicted. Take the example of painless killing, which is a form of “treatment.” In my view, killing a healthy animal for food doesn’t qualify as “humane” or treatment, so it would be wrong—specifically because the animals’ interests aren’t being given equal consideration. So I think I’m able to reject Francione’s theoretical stance concerning his use/treatment distinction while agreeing with most (not all) of his abolitionist goals.

    Put another way, I think animal “use” ultimately reduces to animal “treatment,” and it’s really the latter—how we behave towards them—that matters. The only issue is what types of treatment are morally justified.

  44. Spencelo,

    Surely anaylsing the practice of pet ownership in light of the ‘ideal scenario’ is a highly theoretical exercise, though it may have all knids of important philosophical implications. Its practical irrelevance follows from the ineradicability of pet suffering. To think about pets in the actual world, I would suggest the following experiment–while counterfactua, it does, I think, more closely capture real world conditions. God is feeling creative and is about to conjure another species into existence, but he won’t do so without your approval. He tells you that for every ten contented members of the species, 1 will live in excruciating mental or physical torment. Do you give your assent? The ratio of happiness to misery is, of course, far, far worse in the dungheap of reality.

    ‘Killing a healthy animal for food’: I hate to say this, but I think this is problematic. If my decisions are guided by a strictly utilitarian cost/benefit calculus, I may well end up thinking that raising animals, giving them a really pleasant life, then killing them prematurely but painlessly is preferable to not raising them at all. By raising animals for food, I have arguably increased aggregate happiness, as long as I make sure that my animals enjoy themselves before slaughter. After all, isn’t it better for beings unburderned by a consciousness of mortality to have short, happy lives than no lives at all? In other words, the decision to kill need not be seen in isolation from the enitre birth-to-death cycle: my decison to bestow the inestimable ‘gift’ of existence on my animals is, after all, conditional on my wish to turn them into food or profits. (I think this line of thnking can be defeated, even on utilitarian lines, by referring to the God scenario and remembering that on a society-wide scale, animal husbandry will always result in considerable animal suffering. Thus, even an instance of ‘humane’ husbandry, by reinforcing carnist social norms, indirectly legitimates ‘inhumane’ husbandry. If not, the fact that the Singerian calculations don’t prohibit all animal husbandry must be added to the long list of undesirable consequences that follow from his utilitarian premises. Maybe Francione is on to something)

  45. On second thought: I wrote ‘even on utilitarian lines’; in fact, I’m not sure if the God scenario is in fact utilitarian. I think it’s more Dostoevskian in suggesting that suffering has an incommersurable significance, next to which a numerically far greater amount of pleasure looks utterly paltry.

  46. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your comments. First I agree that killing a happily raised animal for food is problematic, which I elaborate in my post “What’s Wrong with Happy Meat?” I think utilitarian considerations actually weigh in favor of the wrongness. Briefly, killing a happily raised animal deprives it of years of good experiences, and those good experiences outweigh any net gain to humans (e.g., a few tasty meals).

    You ask: “After all, isn’t it better for beings unburderned by a consciousness of mortality to have short, happy lives than no lives at all?” I think this question involves a conceptual mistake, because it asks whether it can be *better* for a being B to be caused to exist than to never have existed, which implies that B, if he never existed, could have been *worse* off. But B, if he never existed, couldn’t have been worse off at all—that’s impossible. Things can’t go worse or better for individuals who never existed.

    Instead, the more coherent question is whether it can be *good* for B to be caused to exist, in which case I’d say ‘yes.’ But the fact that it can be good for B to be caused to exist is irrelevant to the ethical question of killing. So a farmer who points out that causing B to exist has been good for B hasn’t yet justified his decision to kill B (he’d have to face the initial argument above).

    Regarding your first question, I probably wouldn’t give assent, and I think some versions of utilitarianism would give the same answer—namely, the ones that attribute much more intrinsic significance to suffering than to contentment. But if the ratio was large enough (e.g., 1 billion: 1), then maybe I would. I think a lot depends on the duration of suffering for each individual life. Of course, none of this has any bearing on Francione’s ideal scenario where every dog is happy. I largely agree with Francione on the pet issue when he focuses on the actual world, so I don’t think his theoretical stance about the ideal has much practical relevance. We can reach many of the same conclusions regarding animal exploitation even if we reject (as I currently do) his use/treatment distinction.

  47. Spencelo,

    Thanks for replying. Pl feel free to stop replying whenever this gets tedious–just read your excellent ‘Happy Meat’ piece and will presently look up the links. Writing a new article would be a far better use of your time than answering what may be illogical snd confused questions.

    On bringing a ‘happy meat’ animal into the world: I get what you’re saying, that you can’t coherently compare an existent to a non-existent thing. OTOH, you say it may be good to make B exist. But I wonder if the difference is merely verbal. If I perform a good act, X, by making B exist, doesn’t it follow that X is better than not-X? ‘Good’ is grammatically not a comparative but in the context of decision-making doesn’t it conceal a conceptual comparison?

    More: if i have animals that carry diseases and am sure the offspring will suffer terribly from genetic misery, aren’t I acting wrongly by deciding to breed? If yes, the the rightness or wrongness of the decision to make exist seems to depend on the kind of life I expect ‘him’ to have once he’s born. If making B exist is bad if I expect him, on balance, to experience more pain than pleasure in his life, why wouldn’t it be good for be to make B exist if I expect that, on balance, he will experience more pleasure than pain, or better still, if I expect a life which, as long as it lasts, will be marked by great and uninterrupted pleasure? To reinforce the point: suppose their is a gradient of finely calibrated hereditary diseases. The suffering they cause can accurately be predicted and ranges from trivial and fleeting to severe and continuous. Thus, when I’m trying to decide whether it’s moral to make B exist, I must very carefully take his whole life cycle into account. More pleasure than pain is good. More pain than pleasure bad. Why does my intention to kill prematurely upset this calculus? It can just be factored as another element into the pleasure-pain calculus..

    One thing I have trouble with is why one must view the decision to kill in isolation and think of it as constituting the entirety of the decision rather than considering preceding circumstances..

    Another scenario. Say I go around collecting animals slated for immediate slaughter. To make this a little harder for me, let’s say the intended method of slaughter is painless. I wish to give them a much longer life than they would otherwise have, and I’ll make sure they live pleasantly, but I plan to kill them while they’re still healthy. The only favor I’m conferring on them is that I’m prolonging their lives. But my decision to prolong their lives is dependent on my intention of killing them prematurely. I view the whole process as one, indissoluble decision. Is that ok?

    You end your piece by referring to marginal humans. This is useful because most people will reflexively find it repugnant to harm impaired humans. But reflexive sentiments aside, why would a utilitarian object to using either rabbits OR cognitively rabbit-like humans for, let’s say, potentially life-saving experiments? This, admittedly, would be far less frivolous than killing for pleasure, but maybe it still highlights a problem with the fundamentals of utilitarian logic. IIn other words, one feels one has said enough by asking that animals be treated no worse than cognitively similar humans. The hope is that the animals will be raised to the status, such as it is, of the pertinent humans. But on utilitarianism. mayn’t one–musn’t one– rather lower the impaired humans to the current status of animals? For that matter, never mind impaired humans. How about sacrificing all kinds of nonhumans and humans, whatever their capacities, in the interests, both frivolous and weighty, of others, as long as the ratios are ‘right’?

  48. Spencelo,

    I think a clearer way of expressing my idea came to me on my dog walk. I take up your idea of ‘units’ in the context of deciding which, if any, happy animals to breed on the disease gradient. I make all sorts of empirically impausible simplifications in these calculations for simplicitiy’s sake. I make 1 year of happiness equal 1 positive unit. Let’s say I determine that for the decision to breed an animal to be justified, he must be expected to have a life containing not merely 1, but fully 3 positive units. I know that animal A, if engendered, will have three healthy years. I wish to keep A as a pet; I won’t kill him but I know he’s genetically designed to live only 3 years instead of the species life expectancy of decades. Animal B can also be produced, disease-free. His natural lifespan would stretch out to decades, but I plan to keep him for only 3 years then painlessly kill him for sale (his flesh will be most valuable when he’s 3; after that, its cash value will disappear) That’s also 3 positive units. What’s the difference?

  49. Hi Joe,

    You ask deep questions and I may be near the limits of my philosophical knowledge—the issues you raise are subtle and complex, which is why I always find them fascinating. Philosophy is a difficult discipline.

    On the difference between “good for B” and “better for B,” you ask: “If I perform a good act, X, by making B exist, doesn’t it follow that X is better than not-X?” Yes, we can say performing X is indeed better than not performing X (all things being equal), but I don’t think it follows from this that by performing X–thereby causing B to exist—doing so is *better for* B. Consider: suppose I cause a sentient being S to exist who dies after experiencing a few nanoseconds of life, and as a result, I am able to use S’s body to cure all diseases. Is my act of causing S to exist better than not causing S to exist? Clearly, because I made the world better off. Is my act of causing S to exist is good *for S*? I think we can safely say no. So how performing act X compares to not performing it—that, is which is better—doesn’t imply much about whether existence, for B, is good or bad, or about whether B is better off than if he never existed (impossible according to McMahan.)

    And you’re right that one acts wrongly by causing a person to exist who will experience nothing but pain. On McMahan’s view, it’s coherent to say that causing B to exist would be bad for B, or causing B to exist would be good for B. Determining whether life would be good or bad for B is a function of how much net good experiences or net bad experiences he has throughout his life. So, if a farmer causes a truly happy cow to exist, but ends up slaughtering the cow painlessly several years later, we would still say that it was good for the cow to be caused to exist. However, it does not follow from this that killing the cow is morally permissible; the fact that the cow benefited by being caused to exist, via a breeding program that requires slaughter, is irrelevant.

    So regarding your hypothetical, between A and B, there is no difference in this sense: it was (equally) good for A and B to be caused to exist. But from the fact that causing B to exist is good for B, it doesn’t follow that, at the three year mark, it would be permissible to kill him. If this did follow, breeding humans for non-consenting organ replacement would be permissible, but that’s clearly not right.

    You ask: “But reflexive sentiments aside, why would a utilitarian object to using either rabbits OR cognitively rabbit-like humans for, let’s say, potentially life-saving experiments?”

    In principle, the utilitarian can’t categorically reject this possibility—any act is permissible under *some* circumstances if the consequences warranted it. But in terms of practical reality, utilitarianism cannot justify the institutional practice of animal experimentation (Singer’s view), even though many seem to think otherwise (may warrant a future post). Your last question contains an important qualifier, “as long as the ratios are ‘right.’” The ratios would have to be very very high, and I think they’d exclude “trivial interests” if we’re talking about “sacrificing” lives.

  50. spencelo,

    (Again, just ignore when this gets tiresome. I’m just thinking out loud)

    Your 2nd paragraph: better for B etc.,: I’m not sure if the nanoseconds research specimen is germane. In his case, the ‘better for’ problem is resolved by making others its object; in the case of B, I’m not considering others because their interests (in eating his flesh) are trivial and hardly worth counting. I think ( but am not sure) that that still leaves the question hanging. If X is better than not-X, for whom is it better if not for B? Maybe this doesn’t even matter.

    More important, for the breeding scenario, one can fine-tune. Suppose I can genetically pre-program the egg which, if inseminated, will become B, the otherwise healthy animal I intend to kill at 3 for his flesh, so that he’ll automatically die on his third birthday. If I don’t pre-program, I won’t cause this egg to bloom into animal existence, and there will be no being who comes into the world to experience 3 units’ worth of pleasure.

    Breeding humans: Well, that depends on whether utilitarianism can really defend itself against the imputation that it doesn’t have the philosophical resources to protect the few against the many. Animal sacrifices seem a lot easier, beacuse, from what I remember, Singer thinks it’s crucially important that normal adult humans are self-conscious beings who are intensely attached to their future. That seems to put a far higher nonspeciesist value on humans and makes it harder, but, in my view, hardly impossible, to swamp their interest in their future with a mass of countervailing interests.

    Do you know where Singer or others defend against the charge that a sufficiently large aggregation of interests, whatever their intensity, can cause the truly vital interests of some to be sacrificed? I guess a lot of the difficulty lies in quantifying interests. But without quantification, how can one engage in utilitarian moral deliberations?

  51. Hi Joe,

    Rethinking your question, I think the answer may be that there are impersonal reasons for thinking that performing X is better than not performing it, namely that X is preferable because it brings about more goodness in the world—and that’s independent of whether causing B to exist, by performing X, is good for B. So when you ask “for whom is it better?,” the answer seems to be “for no one in particular.” But it could still be the case that X caused more goodness to exist in the world, which makes performing it better. To illustrate, suppose we have two possible worlds, W1 and W2. In W1, God creates 100 very happy people, and in W2, he creates 20 different mildly happy people. We can say God’s act of creating W1 would be better than his act of creating W2 because W1 brings about more goodness in the world, but I think that’s consistent with the notion that that act isn’t “better for” anyone. For if we say God creating W1 is “better for” those 100 happy people, then we would have to say (implausibly) that by not creating W2, the non-created people in W2 are “worse off” for not having been created.

    About your modified breeding scenario, where B automatically dies after three years, I think that avoids the objection raised against killing happy meat (weighing interests). So if that’s wrong, a different argument is needed: particularly an argument that pre-programming the egg to die after three years is wrong. But I’m not sure how it would go.

    Regarding Singer, although I don’t think he’s come out and said this, I think his views entail that humans, with rare exceptions, would be experimented on first before animals. That’s because: 1) we can almost always find humans who are cognitively similar to animals, such that they have equal moral status, and 2) humans are almost always better test subjects (yields better data), so experimenting on them would have greater utility.

    And I don’t recall where Singer has defended the charge, though I’m sure it’s been done by him and other consequentialists before. At some point, when enough interests are at stake, they would bite the bullet and say the vital interests of a person should be sacrificed. But it’s hard to see this line of argument—e.g., utilitarianism permits some horrible act under circumstance C—being a nonquestion begging objection against utilitarianism. Ultimately, it may come down to a clash of fundamental, irreconcilable intuitions—e.g., torture is wrong no matter what v. torture is okay if 1 billion lives are at stake.

  52. Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to your future articles–always very interesting.

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