Thursday, August 20, 2009

Appropriate burdens when dicussing policy for Animal Rights and Animal Welfare

Over the last week there has been much talk on this blog regarding the moral obligations we, as human animals, have to non-human animals. One line of argument against an obligation not to kill non-humans has rested on the factual assumption that nearly all non-human animals do not and cannot experience the world as we do. I share the view (expressed by Mike in a post and in the comments) that even if this were true, there would still be other, morally sufficient grounds for not consuming animals and animal products, but here I want to explore a question about this and other factual assumptions, and where the burden of proof should rest.

Science, historically, has to take some of the blame for the tendency to assume important distinctions between humans and non-humans. In its early, but still modern, days there was a strong rejection of any anthropomorphism. This principle was reasonable in its day. As a field, modern biology and behavior were in their infancy and genetics did not exist at all. Assumptions (partially based in religion and partially based on observation) that Man was very different from the rest of Nature were pervasive and - again - reasonable, given the knowledge available at the time.

Today, however, there is no serious disagreement among biologists, geneticists and behaviorists that non-human animals, for the most part, do experience the world in much the same way as us human animals. The extent and precise contours of that experience - in a creature by creature approach - are slowly being learned. Almost invariably, when a study is published on the matter, the animal and behavior under study is revealed to, in fact, work much like us humans.

This, of course, should not be at all surprising. Human and non-human animals share an enormous amount of genetic code with one another. Our physiology is similar. The physics and chemistry in which our sensory organs and central nervous systems work are nearly identical. Why then should the assumption be that even though physically and chemically two systems are identical those systems act in a completely different manner when found in human animals as opposed to non-human animals?

It shouldn't. The assumption should be the opposite - there and available to be disproved if untrue. That is the way things work in almost every other field, so why should it be different here? If one picks up a piece of granite and tosses it into a still pool of water, observing concentric rings forming and spreading from the point of impact, does one expect something completely different to happen if instead of granite one throws basalt? If instead of into water, one tosses the same rock into a vat of alcohol? Of course not. One may (and should) accept that someone could come along and prove that, in fact, there are different behaviors, but one would not start with the assumption that these events will be entirely different until proven otherwise.

Sherry used exactly this reasoning in her reply to Caleb in her post below: "Because they are so much like us in their neural pathways and brain chemistry, I infer that when they are subjected to human acts that would cause excruciating pain in humans and then react in the same sorts of ways in which humans react to torture, that they are experiencing the same sort of thing that human beings are." That is the appropriate, logical and reasonable response.

If resting their claims on an "other animals are different from us" argument, it should be the burden of those wishing to torture and kill non-human animals - of those asserting that veganism is a "moral error" - to provide evidence that this reasonable conclusion regarding similarity is, in fact, not true.

-posted by Paul Scott