“…selective use of an argument we would reject in other contexts.” From, The Ethics Of What We Eat.
This single statement, it seems reasonable to argue, underlies the reasoning (Or lack thereof?) of all those, or at least the vast majority, who deny the existence of the rights of nonhuman animals.
For proof, let’s consider some examples:
“The natural order dictates that some are predators and others are prey; therefore, as we exist within this “natural order,” we are fulfilling our role. Ethics, then, cannot go to challenge our part in this order. Or put differently, this very nature of things answers the question, “What is ethical in this situation?”"
Returning to the statement quoted above, we find a simple rebuke founded on solid reasoning: “But this “argument from nature” can justify all kinds of inequities, including the rule of men over women and leaving the weak and sick to fall by the wayside.” Therefore, are we willing to accept the logical conclusions of our own premises, such as, for another example: Social Darwinism dictates that all welfare programs ought to be abolished because, as in nature, natural processes will select out the weak – those individuals putting downward pressure on our society – from the gene pool, which will result in a stronger population as a whole. This, the argument concludes, is the natural order of things. If we are not willing to accept this, we must define a sound principle that separates the two situations. Reason demands that we defend this inherent contradiction.
“It is Western tradition to exploit nonhuman animals. Indeed, many of our cultural practices are predicated on the notion that this exploitation is “good.” Therefore, because animal flesh, for example, is so significant to us, there’s something intrinsically okay about the practice.”
“But,” as Singer and Mason write, “when cultural practices are harmful they should not be allowed to go unchallenged. Slavery was once part of the culture of the American South” (and still is throughout the world today). They continue, “Biases against women…have been, and in some places still are, culturally significant.” Therefore, it follows from our reliance on “Because it has always been this way” as a moral defense of torturing a bull to death for entertainment, for example, that similar claims can be made to justify a policy that homosexuals ought to be socially chastised into submission, and refused entrance into the public sphere. It follows, but should we accept this logic?
“Yes, nonhuman animals have interests in not being harmed, however, human interests, because we are human, always trump the interests of nonhumans, no matter how fundamental (e.g., a cows interest in not suffering simply because I happen to enjoy the taste of his flesh), because they are not human.”
Singer replies: “If we ignore or discount [nonhuman animal] interests simply on the grounds that they are not members of our species, the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists or sexists – those who think that to be white, or male, is to be inherently superior in moral status, irrespective of other characteristics or qualities.” If we accept speciesism as valid, how can we reasonably reject other forms of bigotry as being unethical?
“Okay, but nonhuman animals cannot reason, or do mathematics, or speak human language…”
A response to this is as simple as it is persuasive: What of human infants, those in the advanced stages of senility, or those severely mentally handicapped? Surely they are less self-aware, and more unreasonable, than an adult hog. Therefore, how can we use these criteria to draw a distinction between all humans on the one hand and all nonhuman animals on the other? We cannot, lest we accept demonstrable arbitrariness as ethically valid or we reject “intellectual capacity” as a necessary characteristic for entrance into the moral community (i.e., distinguishing those who count from those who don’t).
“Nonhumans were bred specifically for our ends. Such is the reason (and cause) of their existence. So, as long as we aren’t unnecessarily harming them, because this isn’t rational given that it’s not the best use of them as things, it doesn’t make sense to argue that we shouldn’t be using them.”
This same defense, verbatim, was employed by Southern plantation owners when defending their “right” to enslave Africans and black Americans. Further, would we accept this claim if the ‘slave’ were a child and the ‘plantation owner’ a mother: “I specifically bred,” the mother argues, “this child for X, Y, and Z purposes. So I will exploit her accordingly”? There are clearly some missing premises here: What justifies the breeding in the first place? and How does the act of bringing a being with interests into the world justify refusing to acknowledge and respect those interests? Doesn’t it, in fact, work the other way: Because of the mothers actions, she must accept the duties or obligations associated with bringing a defenseless being into this world. Such as, for example, protecting her child from harm.
This list could go on, however, my intent isn’t to exhaust our excuses but to illuminate the underlying contradictions in the hopes that we can look internally and try to avoid these logical and ethical traps ourselves.
Crossposted @ That Vegan Girl