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.