Monday, July 21, 2008

Are Lions Murderers?

I have written a column that will appear some time today (Monday) discussing the Spanish Parliament's likely adoption of resolutions recognizing limited human rights in Great Apes. Such rights include entitlements not to be tortured, killed, or held in captivity. In the column, I discuss an argument made by some of the resolutions' detractors -- that all human beings should enjoy these rights before we grant them to any nonhuman beings -- as well as one argument made by its defenders -- that the resolutions are the first step along the path to recognizing that our consumption of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and experimentation is wrong. I respond to these arguments in the column, so I want to take the opportunity in this blog post to discuss a different question that often arises in discussions about animal rights (including some comments that have appeared in response to my own past posts). The question is this: how can it be immoral to torture, kill, and consume other animals when animals themselves consume other animals?

When I hear this question, I wonder exactly what point the questioner is trying to make. I assume that it is intended to show that consuming and otherwise hurting nonhuman animals is morally justified. If this is the meaning of the question, then how would this argument work? One possibility is that there is an implicit accusation that nonhuman animals somehow forfeit any right against consumption, because they do not respect such rights in others. If that is the accusation, then I would be interested in learning whether the omnivores who make this argument limit their animal consumption to other omnivores and carnivores. Cows, after all, are naturally herbivorous, so they appear not to be among those who, on this approach, forfeit their right not to be tortured and killed as food. And conversely, I have yet to hear an argument that because many humans kill and torture animals, it must therefore be acceptable to kill and torture those omnivorous humans.

Perhaps, however, the omnivorous animals question does not present an argument about moral forfeiture. Instead, it may be intended to demonstrate that it is "normal" or "natural" to consume other animals, as other species do it as well. If this is the argument, then I am surprised to hear that people who are content to consume other animals believe that those other animals' conduct should serve as a moral model for human emulation. If nonhuman animals are so different from us that they do not "count" enough to qualify for the most basic of our rights -- not to be tortured and killed for food -- then it is difficult to see how we can properly invoke their behavior to demonstrate that ours is morally acceptable because it mirrors theirs. Another problem with the argument that "lions do it, so why shouldn't we?" is that we in fact judge much behavior that is common among many nonhuman species (and, for that matter, among human beings as well) as outrageous and wrong. There is no question, for example, that many animals routinely coerce one another to have intercourse (contrary to popular belief, female mammals in heat are not receptive to all males and therefore resist when an "undesirable" male attempts, sometimes successfully, to copulate with them), as do many human beings. Rather than qualify as an argument for legalizing rape, however, the prevalence of this conduct shows simply that we face a challenge in trying to protect potential victims against predatory behavior. To put it differently, we would not require a criminal law if harming one another did not come so "naturally" in the absence of law.

Most nonhuman animals do not appear to share one of our capacities -- the ability to make decisions on the basis of a moral rule. This makes them innocent when they carry out predatory conduct that would be culpable if committed by one of us. This does not, however, exclude nonhumans from the community of living creatures who have a right not to be tortured and killed. If it did, then we would be permitted to torture and kill with impunity any human being who lacked the ability to carry out moral reasoning, that is, infants and severely mentally disabled human beings.

In short, the fact that (some) nonhuman animals consume other nonhuman animals does not represent an argument for the moral acceptability of our consumption of nonhuman animals, as a matter of either moral forfeiture or moral role modeling.


Unknown said...

The more interesting question is, since predation is deemed immoral and the only justification for predation by lions and other predators is their lack of moral capacity, should humans intervene in these predator/prey relationships where possible? Should humans work to see that omnivorous species stick to being herbivores, and try to limit the meat consumption of purely carnivorous creatures...or try to find suitable plant-based substitutes?

I know some ethics scholars have actually addressed this problem before, but I'm not versed in their answers.

Hamiltwan said...

Perhaps people who ask that question are attempting to understand why consumption of meat is wrong when it is natural for omnivores such as humans (although not in the proportions most people consume), and the fact that carnivores like Lions have no other choice underscores that point. Moderation in meat consumption seems much more resilient to arguments about the natural-ness of eating other animals. The same sort of argument could be made about what you refer to as the "torture" of animals, which I assume is the factory farm system of meat processing. Perhaps the baseline should be the natural state in which animals are killed (sometimes gruesomely) by predators and other 'natural' causes. This would argue that some of the excesses of factory farming are still clearly wrong, but herding cattle and euthanizing them may still be an improvement over the natural baseline.

As much as I empathize with animals, it seems unreasonable to hold their treatment to human (at least educated western non-Bush administration) levels.

I could make an argument about like-treatment of unlike groups being just as unequal as unlike treatment of like groups, but that seems to be a tangent too far.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Nathan raises a very interesting question. My inclination is to resist intervention in the relationship between wild predators and prey. Most "prey" animals (unlike the animals humans breed) do not get caught by a predator, and (relatedly) predators themselves (again, unlike us) rarely consume more than they require for survival. Before attempting to intervene (and potentially unwittingly harming these species), we can do a lot more good (for sentient animals as well as for the environment) by weaning our species off animal products. What to do about a lion chasing a gazelle is, in other words, a difficult question. What we do about our own predatory behavior is not.

Sherry F. Colb said...

This is a rushed comment, but I wanted to respond to hamilton. When I say "torture," I refer not only to animals' treatment on factory farms (which are among the worst but by no means the only offenders). To refer to the death of "meat" animals as "euthanasia" strikes me as inaccurate in two respects. First, euthanasia is supposed to be relatively painless. Even "organic" farm animals do not die a painless death -- they are often hoisted upside down, they can smell the blood of the other animals and experience intense terror and anxiety, and the main priority is to preserve the meat rather than to spare them suffering as they die. Being "stunned" with electricity first is the equivalent of being hit with an electric current, which is itself uncomfortable (and often does not completely protect against further suffering). Second, euthanasia refers to death that is at least plausibly described as intended to spare the creature who is dying a worse fate than death. The animals are killed when they are still young so that others can eat them and wear them. They are not killed for their own good or to help them in some way. Finally, no one is asking that animals be treated like human beings (in the sense of being given a right to vote or to have equal access to a job, etc.). For them to have the rights not to be consumed, not to be made to suffer terrible pain, and not to be slaughtered for our use is really the only way one could accurately describe animals as having rights at all. Where human beings differ from animals, it is appropriate to treat them differently. Where they do not (i.e., in a capacity to feel pain, to feel loss at having one's young and one's mate ripped away), there is no justification other than resort to tautologies analogous to racism and sexism to treat them differently.

Hamiltwan said...

I didn't mean to imply that animals were killed painlessly, only that a more effective animal rights argument would be that humans should reduce their excesses, both in terms of volume of meat consumed and methods of getting that meat to market. It seems to me that the term "torture" when applied to animal slaughter turns many people off from the animal rights view (regardless of its accuracy as a term). The extremism (if this were more than a blog comment I'd try to think of a less loaded term, but I do mean the word in its purely literal sense) of humans exiting the "circle of life" by not killing or consuming animals at all leads people to view the issue as an either/or, rather than something with degrees to suit each individual's morality with respect to animals.

Tam Ho said...

Hamilton: it is the reluctance of many even to entertain the idea that animals could be tortured despite our knowledge of their ability to feel pain, fear, anxiety, in the same ways that humans do that is the extreme component in this debate, not the characterization of certain forms of animal treatment as torture.

As a semantic matter, it seems quite intuitive to say that certain acts to pain-sensing animals constitute torture. If you had a cat or dog, you can easily imagine a multitude of things that someone could do to such a pet that even those you are thinking about would call torture in the very same way they would apply to the term to a human victim, unless they are disingenuously avoiding the application of that term to animals for fear of inconsistency with their opposition to Prof. Colb's argument.

It is the qualia of pain experience that is important here, and the distinction as to species is one without a difference.

Bottom line, and this gets at the theme that Prof. Buchanan rightly harps on regarding the importance of words - while your observation of some people's irrational reactions to this topic are no doubt accurate, I think it's important on account of that very irrationality to approach the topic cautiously and to choose one's words and characterizations with critical precision.

Sobek said...

" can it be immoral to torture, kill, and consume other animals when animals themselves consume other animals?"

I'm still trying to figure out why animals should enjoy greater legal protections than unborn human beings.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Though I take it Sobek's question is meant to be rhetorical, I will nonetheless offer a brief response. Ask most people who are pro-choice whether they think it is ethical deliberately to conceive and carry a pregnancy to the second trimester in order to provide an organ (let alone food) for other people, and they will be morally troubled by the prospect. The reason is that while a woman has a right not to become or remain a biological incubator to another life (whenever that life is said to "begin"), this does not entitle her to create the life in question for purposes of using its flesh for consumption or otherwise. If a person were hypothetically to become pregnant with another species, in other words, the animal rights position would not preclude an abortion any more than it does in an actual human pregnancy. In the case of the food and clothing industries, however, people deliberately bring animals into existence for the purpose of "farming" their flesh and skin. The animals do not threaten any human being's bodily integrity. To put it differently, the rights that vegans press for animals do not carry any true conflict with human beings' rights to self-defense, while the rights that pro-life advocates press for embryos and fetuses do.

Sobek said...

"...this does not entitle her to create the life in question for purposes of using its flesh for consumption or otherwise."

You may be aware of an "artist" who recently made a stir by claiming (now disputed) that she repeatedly impregnated herself and induced abortions so that she could use the aborted tissue in an art project.

Assuming she was telling the truth, would you support a law criminalizing such activity?

In addition, while most unwanted pregancies obviously are not so extreme as that example, virtually all of them (with an obvious exception for rape) happen with an intent level sufficient to support a criminal conviction. If I randomly fire a gun into a crowd, the law will hold me accountable for any deaths I cause, even if I didn't specifically intend to kill anyone, because I knew the probable consequences of my actions. A woman who intentionally engages in unprotected sex also knows that she risks a pregnancy -- and despite that knowledge, does it anyway. Perhaps she doesn't want to be an unwilling incubator, but she engaged in conduct that she knew was reasonably likely to make her one.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hi Sobek. I would not favor criminalizing the alleged behavior of the abortion "artist." The reason I would not is that criminalization would inevitably open the door to motive inquiries whenever any woman seeks an abortion and would therefore create a substantial burden on the vast majority of women who do not set out to become pregnant so that they can abort and then kill and use the resulting embryo or fetus. As to the "assumption of risk" argument, the question is a normative one: what ought to count as "consent" to being an incubator? You might support a rape exception to an abortion ban on the theory that pregnancy resulting from rape is nonconsensual, but someone else might want to argue that if a woman does not have herself sterilized, then she risks being an incubator because she might be raped. Others, going in the other direction, might want to provide an exception for women who used contraception and thereby reduced the risk substantially. And still others (myself included) think that pregnancy is too serious an imposition on the woman's body to treat intercourse as tantamount to consent to carrying a pregnancy (or waiver of the right not to) at all.

Sobek said...

"The reason I would not is that criminalization would inevitably open the door to motive inquiries..."

So if a person produces a cow for the purpose of destroying it, that can be criminalized (at least in Spain), but if a person produces a human for the sole purpose of destroying it, that cannot. I must say I'm surprised at your response.

"As to the 'assumption of risk' argument..."

To be clear, I'm not using the "assumption of risk" concept from tort law. I'm using "knowingly" or as defined in the Model Penal Code, where a person is aware of the consequences of an action and does it anyway. As with my gun example, I may fire a weapon into a crowd without specifically intending to kill anyone, but the law will not excuse my conduct on that basis. If I breed cows on my hypothetical farm, I may not specifically wish for them to be slaughtered for food and goods, but I know the probable results. If a woman engages in unprotected sex while fertile, she knows the probable consequences.

In response you raise something like a slippery slope argument. First of all, I'm not a legislature or a court, so there's no slippery slope problem in agreeing with me in theory that human beings deserve at least as much legal protection from knowing behavior as animals.

Secondly, the slippery slope argument works in the opposite direction. If you argue that a woman shouldn't be forced to incubate a fetus, what about raising an infant -- in many ways a far more difficult and stressful practice? Why not allow fifth trimester abortions? Why draw the line at birth? Why force a woman to abandon her career -- not just for a few months during pregnancy, but for several years, until the child is in school?

This is not the first time I've argued abortion rights in the context of an animal cruelty post on this site. Prof. Dorf is willing to defend lobsters from human consumption, in spite of their lack of pain receptors, on the possibility that a lobster can feel pain through a mechanism currently unknown to science; but he is apparently unwilling to defend human beings from forcible dismemberment because they probably can't feel pain, and their jerking motions are might be painless reflex reactions.

I simply don't understand a greater solicitousness towards animals than to humans.

Still, I would gladly become a vegan tomorrow if it meant no more abortions.

Sherry F. Colb said...


I will respond to some of your thoughts here and then let you have the last word. First, no one is criminalizing the breeding of cows. I am suggesting that producing a sentient living creature (whether human or nonhuman) for purposes of utilizing that creature as a physical resource, inflicting suffering and death on the creature in the process, is wrong and that its wrongness has nothing to do with the subject's ability to make tools or do math or otherwise exhibit the skills of human beings. Whether or not to criminalize wrongful conduct is a policy question that necessarily must taken into account the likely consequences of criminalization (which you may call a “slippery slope argument,” but which does not strike me as such). I do not think it is realistic and therefore productive to try to criminalize the harm that is routinely inflicted on farm animals as part of “good industry practice,” because no one would be willing to enforce such a law. I also believe that criminalizing abortions intended to mine fetuses as resources would be a bad idea, although for different reasons. Such abortions -- offensive as they are -- are so rare that the primary (if not exclusive) effect of the proposed legislation would be to burden women seeking abortions whose motives have nothing to do with fetus-mining.
Second, I do not think there is a plausible comparison between a fertile woman having sex (vis-à-vis the risk of creating an embryo or fetus that she would abort) and a farmer breeding cows (vis-a-vis the "risk" of slaughter). A fertile woman who has unprotected consensual sex on any given occasion has only about 2-3% odds of conceiving (the odds are much higher if she is raped, perhaps exposing a instinctual selection bias of rapists toward ovulating women). If she does happen to conceive, moreover, and have an abortion, she is not aborting in order to use the embryo’s tissue or fetal tissue (except in the very rare and peculiar case of the “artist” you mention, who might well have been engaged in a hoax but in any event is an outlier). The cow breeder, on the other hand, virtually always is breeding cows for the purpose of using them as a raw material for food or clothing (or selling them to someone else for such use). Not only is the slaughter of every cow a near-certainty (as compared with a 2% risk of pregnancy), but entire point of their creation is their use and slaughter, which is obviously not the reason that fertile women have sex.
Third, you are correct to note that raising a child is very demanding. It is also important to observe, however, that no one is legally compelled to raise an infant. Once a woman has given birth to a baby, if she does not want to raise that baby, she may surrender him or her for adoption. If a woman has a baby and wants to pursue a career, moreover, she has options that make this possible without either killing or surrendering her child for adoption. In some families, for example, a man stays home and takes care of his young while his female partner pursues her career. In other families, people either hire a babysitter or share childcare duties with family members. The point is that once an infant is born, no one is compelled by the government to have her bodily integrity invaded, and separation from the baby is accomplished without anyone's death. The baby can live and thrive, with or without the woman’s involvement. Because of the biology of pregnancy, this is not possible as long as the woman is pregnant, at least prior to viability.

In short, no one is being more solicitous of nonhuman animals than of human animals. And the right to terminate a pregnancy does not entail a right to kill one’s born children nor does it entail a right to breed fetuses for consumption. Nonetheless, I am glad to hear that you would consider becoming a vegan. To read a book by someone who is both pro-life and opposed to the consumption of animals, see Dominion, by Matthew Scully (former Bush speech-writer). Scully writes beautifully, and the book is fascinating.

Tam Ho said...

Sobek: The preference for fewer abortions conveyed by your vegan comment is universally shared.

I think it was the erstwhile 2008 GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani who, at a GOP primary debate, began his response to a question on abortion rights by noting that "everyone on this stage" (and thus by implication excluding the Democratic candidates) prefers fewer rather than more abortions. Well, of course; just like everyone, regardless of his or her position on gun control rights, prefers a world with fewer murders by guns (or by any other instrument).

Speaking of gun control, for that matter, do you think your arguments against abortion that hinge on the "knowing" mens rea apply equally to making guns available at large in society? Setting aside the constitutional issue for now, as a public policy matter, can your view on abortion be consistent with supporting gun rights? (My question does not presume that you support gun rights - I do not know whether you do).

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Unknown said...

We don't always let the innocent roam free. There are some people who kill on the account of a mental illness; What we do to them is detain them. They may not know any better, but that doesn't mean the consequences of their actions simply disappear.