2006/04/25

Are vegetarianism/animal rights/animal liberation philosophically incoherent?

From a humanist (human-supremicist) standpoint, there are many strong reasons to reduce meat eating. The key one, I think, is that current livestock practices undermine the environmental sustainability needed for human life to flourish. But we should be clear - this argument doesn't require eliminating animal eating or animal exploitation, only reducing them.

I don't think humanism can stand up to the anti-speciesist argument. Separating humans from other life and calling for the right to life, freedom, and equality for humans is based on the arbitrarily-chosen "special properties" of humans. No argument is made for why protection from torture and murder should follow from the ability to use language or demonstrate self-consciousness. And frequently humanists still want to protect even those humans who don't possess such properties, like the severely retarded or comatose.

The question is whether an anti-humanist perspective is any more viable. Once you recognize that the arbitrarily-drawn categories that protect humans are invalid, I don't see how you can avoid accepting that all life, including plants and insects, is equally deserving of protection. Where does that leave us, living in an industrial society that necessarily kills millions upon millions of plants and insects?

At some point I think we have to accept that to live is to kill, that nothing short of the elimination of all humans (and all predators for that matter) is consistent with anti-humanist rights to life and freedom. It goes without saying that such a solution, which demands massive killing, is itself inconsistent with these commitments.

So where does that leave us? I think harm reduction is really the only appropriate way forward, unless you want to go straight for absolute nihilism. We have to reduce as far as possible the human impact on other living things. Some obvious measures include:

1) Stop eating most animals,
2) Promote sustainable agriculture,
3) Pursue population control,
4) Produce and consume less,
5) Research technologies that keep unwelcome animals out of human habitats without hurting them.

But these guidelines are less absolute than a lot of us are used to. I don't think there's any question we should stop eating mammals and birds, since raising them for food not only involves killing them but also killing all the plant feed they eat. However, it's less clear that eating wild fish and insects is a problem. We should certainly consume less, but what kinds of consumption are indispensable remains an open question. An impact reduction approach also fails to answer questions of how to balance the need to prevent suffering with the need to prevent killing, and where all this leaves the matter of animal exploitation.

Thoughts?

8 comments:

Chris said...

And if i can add one more hurdle (not necessarily an objection) to the list, an ethic of harm reduction seems much less compelling than the bright lines of absolute vegetarian morality, descended as they are, from western philosophy and religions. How do we get from where we are (a time when vegetarianism isn't even well regarded by the majority) to this goal?

jenny said...

i have to point out that fishing can be very destructive to many plant and animal species, particularly fishing near fragile coastal areas and estuaries. i don't understand why so many people think eating fish is not bad. it's one of the most harmful food sources we have, at least under current practices.
some hyped-up (in a good way) info about fishing is at greenpeace.

in order to have environmentally benign meat, you would need to enter an world where devolution and primitivism is possible. i don't think we can give the same moral weight to human methods of killing and eating animals as we can to other animals eating animals. a bear catching a fish for dinner is much different than a fishing operation to feed an entire city.

aside from that, i also wanted to say that the right to life is not necessarily the main concern for animal liberation. it has to do with not using animals as tools for human ends. this includes not having animals as pets, which is partly where animal lib and animal welfare theory diverge.

the reduction of harm by the items you list doesn't take into account the other ways that animals are exploited, like in medical research, fashion and entertainment (horse/dog racing, rodeos, circuses). this is why i think that the environmental-harm perspective is limiting, and why you may see it as humanist.

there are so many deliberate ways that animals are used and harmed, that the killing-insects-on-a-road-trip theory becomes irrelevant or absurd. our social structure is entrenched in speciesism. it's almost impossible to be completely consistent with philosophy and action. the question should be more along the lines of, "should we drive a car" or "should cars exist" instead of "should we take a road trip if it will kill insects."

Chris said...

i don't think that what you're saying about eating animals is necessarily true, it's possible for hunting to happen without hurting the environment, although obviously, hunting can't feed the urban masses.

but you're other points are really good, particularly on the "right to life" issue. although to defend myself, i should mention that i originally invoked the "killing-insects-on-a-road-trip theory" to make what i thought was a very similar point about "right to life" being problematic.

although i guess i'm a bit unclear about the end of the last paragraph... it seems like a human society that doesn't make use of animals for human ends is at least potentially possible and well worth working towards. one that doesn't kill any animals seems not possible even in a world of "devolution and primitivism."

jenny said...

i agree that hunting for food could be considered environmentally benign if it's done on a very small scale. i also think hunting is good because it requires the hunter to connect killing and pain to food on the table...making it less likely to be taken for granted. but what about the production of guns? if everyone hunted, would the forest animal population be decimated? seems like people are a lot more likely to shoot each other too, but that's okay with me.

about the last paragraph...i think you just said what we are all trying to say. my point was just that our lives our structured to unavoidably cause harm to other beings. we can minimize the harm working within our social framework, but we really need a completely different way of living, too. assuming you have faith in humans. it seems silly to mention that because i think we're at the point now where very small lifestyle changes can make a large impact and can snowball.

Patrick said...

You also need to consider a systems-level ecological perspective, which from any environmental consideration is much more compelling than the harm done to individual creatures. Much of our meddling with natural systems actually *increases* the population of some species, which promptly gets us into a very difficult spot. What happens when deer are living far beyond their carrying capacity and undermining the entire Midwestern upland hardwood ecosystem? What happens when elimination of natural predators has allowed mountain goats to reproduce far beyond normal ecological constraints and denude fragile alpine plant communities (and therefore soil, and therefore their own long-term food supply)?

These situations are sometimes trotted out by anti-animal rights thinkers, but that doesn't mean they're not extremely important challenges. Can you, as an animal rights activist, support the culling of mountain goats to a sustainable level if that's necessary to the stability of the system? (And there are sometimes very good reasons why relocation isn't an option - very good *ecological* reasons, i.e., not the obvious economic ones.)

And if you protest controlled deer hunting or mountain goat reduction, how do you feel about eliminating the out-of-control ant populations that have come into existence up and down, say, the Colorado River with the advent of river tourism? These sorts of challenges don't only involve megafauna.

I obviously don't have an answer, but I'll admit I've been frustrated to see animal rights activists hold the rights of individual animals (e.g., the mountain goat example) far above the long-term sustainability of their ecosystem. This experience is probably why I'm reluctant to call myself an "animal rights" adherent, even tho I'm a committed vegetarian, anti-cruelty, anti-CAFO/pro-organic, etc., etc.

On the other hand...you can't *only* use the yardstick of ecological (system) stability, because that could actually tolerate a fair measure of wanton cruelty to individual animals without any harm to the overall system. Take sport hunting, for example: small-scale sport hunting could continue to happen without any overall ecological harm, but I still think sport hunting is repugnant. (Subsistence hunting is another question, as you both pointed out.)

Chris said...

really good point. the big challenge, i think, is to combine larger concerns like these with some level of concern for individual animals without resorting to something that i find to be philosophically questionable, like utilitarianism.

i think jenny is on the right track. a good way to articulate animal liberation concerns is challenging the point of view that holds that animals are there for the use of humans.

but i don't think that animal liberation necessarily entails an absolute prohibition on killing. but this is likely to be an uncomfortable area, cause it seems like we're well outside of the safe language of standard moralities, couched as it is in disingenuously guaranteed rights and liberties. the question is, how can this perspectice be made into some kind of systematized morality that people will find compelling? or is the point more that we should abandon a systematized morality? how does that work?

Jake said...

i don't think i want to give up a commitment to the rights of individuals. i'm not sure that we can preserve any sort of anti-oppression, anti-killing philosophy without basing it in individual rights, and that includes a philosophy of liberation for humans. can anyone suggest something that's not founded on individual rights?

as for the principle of not using animals for human ends, i'm not sure that really gets us anywhere. why exactly should we care about not exploiting animals if we don't care whether they live or die?

a harm-reduction approach is in keeping with individual rights once the impossibility of eliminating all killing is recognized. this can include the kind of ecological management that patrick's talking about. but that sort of thing does put us in the uncomfortable position of using ends to justify means...

Chris said...

well, sometimes when i get going i get a little too florid. but i think that proponents of standard moral theories are often disingenuous when doling out rights. the idea of animal rights seems deeply imbedded in animal welfare-ism.

having said that, i'm not against rights for individuals, humans or animals. but you've got to be realistic about it, rights are never involable. there are always situations in which rights are disregarded, and theories that explain the fundamental derivation of rights are bunk... they can only ever be tenuously granted by a society or state of some kind.

i don't think that the best way of humans relating to non-human animals is through granting them rights. animals are probably best off when they're outside of human society.

can we be concerned with the exploitation of animals without caring if they live or die? sort of. if animals are getting crushed by falling rocks, should we take it upon ourselves to move them away from the danger? i don't mean to be overly-glib (and i certainly recognize that the situation is different when humans are endangering animals through their actions) but death is a part of existence.

death and violence will always be a part of the lives of animals, it's condescending for humans to consider it their duty to end that. individual animals are important, but animals are also important as groups (socities, species, etc.)

i don't know, what do you think?