Beyond Might Makes Right
A Philosophical Essay Concerning the Rights of Animals with special
treatment to the subject of animals in experimentation.
by Matthew Ball and Jack
What is meant by "rights"
The philosophical foundation of most
Western cultures is based on the concept of rights. There may be other
means of reconstructing the issues surrounding the place of other animals
in an ethical framework, but dealing with these issues within the
well-developed, understood, and accepted moral framework of rights is the
most prudent means of addressing the problem.
The term "rights" will be used here to refer to the entitlement of an
individual not to be killed or made to suffer at the hands of others. It
is assumed that the reader believes humans to have these rights.
While the phrase "made to suffer" is vague, it will be used here to
refer to the same level of suffering in animals as would be spoken of in
humans. In other words, if you believe that a human has the right to be
spared an intensity or amount of suffering "x", then the word "right" will
be used here to refer to the right of any being to be spared the intensity
or amount of suffering "x".
Animals are not human
The reason given most often for claiming
that other animals should not have rights is that they are not human.
However, "human" is only an arbitrary label without any moral relevance in
and of itself.
In the past, the term "human" was used to refer only to light-skinned
people of European descent. Given that the definition of "human" can
change, one cannot simply say that an individual has rights because that
individual is "human" while another individual has no rights because that
individual is not "human."
Differences in degree
Many say that humans deserve rights while
other beings do not because humans have a greater level of certain
characteristics than other animals: humans are more intelligent, creative,
aware, technologically advanced, dominant, able to use language, able to
enter into contracts, able to make moral choices, etc. Thus, humans
deserve rights because they have a greater degree of these
This argument of degrees has two problems:
Despite this, many people believe that all humans, regardless of
their relative level of intelligence, creativity, etc. should have rights,
while other animals should not. These people try to include all humans
while excluding all other animals in one of several ways.
Instead of thinking that rights are granted to an entire group, a
more accurate view of rights is that they are granted to individuals,
because it is individuals, not groups, who are capable of suffering and
dying. To say, "all individuals in the group `human' have the right not
to be killed" has meaning, but to say "the group `human' has the right
not to be killed" has no meaning.
- Not all humans possess these characteristics to a greater degree
than all other non-humans. There are non- humans who are more
intelligent, creative, aware, dominant, technologically advanced (in
reference to tool making), and able to use language, than some humans;
many animals are at least equal to many humans in their ability to enter
into contracts or act morally. Examples would be a chimpanzee compared
to a human infant or a severely mentally handicapped person. If rights
were granted at a certain level of a characteristic such as those
listed, the more intelligent (creative, etc.) animals would have rights
while the less intelligent (creative, etc.) humans would not.
Some say the humans who are surpassed by
some animals in a certain characteristic have rights because they have a
greater potential for these characteristics than do other animals.
Again, this argument is not true of all humans. For example, humans who
have had portions of their brains irreparably destroyed, although still
able to function to a degree, have no potential for obtaining the
intelligence level of a chimpanzee. Yet most people would say that an
injury or disease which causes brain damage does not rob that individual
of their rights.
Value to others
Another rationale is that even though infants
cannot enter into moral contracts, they should be granted rights because
they are valued by other humans (their parents, for instance) who can
enter into contracts. By this argument, infants themselves do not possess
any inherent rights, but receive them only if valued by an adult human.
At the same time, being valued by an adult human does not grant rights
to pigs, parakeets, pet rocks, or Porsches. This is inconsistent: either
one is granted rights by being valued by an adult human, and thus
everything valued by an adult human has rights, or there must be a
different criteria for granting rights.
People who believe that rights are granted to infants because of their
value to an adult human would have to admit that infants who are not
valued by other humans could be used in medical research. Indeed, this
would be morally imperative in order to benefit infants who are valued by
others. Most people would contend, however, that even unvalued orphans
have rights. Therefore, rights must be based on other criteria.
If only individuals of the group now defined as
"human" have rights regardless of their level of certain characteristics,
on what basis are chimpanzees, pigs, elephants, dogs, cats, etc., excluded
from the group to which all humans belong?
One answer is that humans have rights because they belong to the
species Homo Sapiens. In other words, a chimpanzee may very well be as
intelligent (or creative, etc.) as some humans, but chimpanzees do not
have rights because they are not members of the biologically defined
rights-bearing species, Homo Sapiens.
Supposing that it is possible to come up with a genetic definition of
Homo Sapiens that includes most individuals our society currently
considers "human" and excludes all individuals our society currently does
not consider "human," the questions then become:
A thoughtful person might find having
their rights (or lack thereof) determined by a sequence of molecules to be
a bit absurd. It is no better than basing rights on the pigmentation of
one's skin (which is also determined by the individual's genetic code).
Why should rights be deserved solely on the basis of a certain
sequence of genes?
If rights should be based on genes, why should the line be drawn at
the species level? And why at Homo Sapiens? Why shouldn't the line be
drawn at race, order, phylum, or kingdom?
- Among the genes that determine one's eye color, etc., which gene is
it that confers rights?
Some would argue that while infants and the mentally
handicapped deserve rights, other animals don't because the current law
grants legal rights to infants and the mentally handicapped. However,
these people are ignoring the fact that whoever has legal rights is
determined merely by the opinion of today's legislators. The law changes
as people's opinions or political motivations change. Politicians decide
who they think should have rights and make laws accordingly, not
vice-versa. Though the law changes over time, the moral status of beings -
whether a being has inherent rights, such as the right to non-exploitation
- does not. For example, minorities in the United States did not change
when the law decided to include them.
Ability to understand abstract concepts
It has been argued that
non-humans do not deserve rights because they cannot understand abstract
concepts. An example is the contention that pigs do not understand death,
so there is no moral reason not to take a pig's life.
Anyone who has observed pigs in a slaughterhouse would find it
difficult not to conclude that pigs understand death to the extent that
they are in great terror when confronted with it. Indeed, most animals act
as though they have a functional idea of what death is. They fight to stay
alive and can tell when another of their own is dead. What more do humans
know about death that is morally relevant? Indeed, many animals have a
greater grasp of death, self-preservation, and other concepts than do
infants and the mentally impaired.
The Golden Rule
In the past, humans may have respected each
other's rights in order to survive without constant violence, and many
people still function on this level. Yet over time, the more civilized
people have evolved a moral system that grants rights based not just on
self-protection, but on the Golden Rule - treat your neighbor as you would
like to be treated. We know that we want to stay alive, do not wish to
suffer, etc., and we assume others like us have the same desires. Being
capable of looking beyond our own individual interests, we apply the
Golden Rule even to people who could not harm us.
How much like us does a being have to be before we include them under
the Golden Rule? At one time, women were not enough like the men who held
power to be granted many rights. Neither were minorities in the United
States and other societies. Even though the circle has expanded to include
these individuals in the United States, today other animals are still not
considered sufficiently like us for the majority of people to treat these
animals our neighbors under the Golden Rule.
If they looked like us ...
Searching for some characteristic to
justify granting all humans rights while denying rights to all other
animals is futile. A moral system based on any of the characteristics
discussed so far would either include many species of non-human animals or
exclude infants and some mentally handicapped.
While the term "human" seems defining, and is even used here for the
convenience of easy communication, it is an ambiguous, morally meaningless
label. The question remains: where does one draw the line? A difference of
appearance is a matter of degree as well as ethically irrelevant - outward
physical attributes have no relationship to whether a being or object
should be granted rights or could even appreciate them. A human-looking
mannequin has no more need or desire for rights than a rock or a log.
However, as when race was the dividing line for rights, the dividing line
for most people is still looks - if the animals we eat and use in
experimentation looked like us, they would be granted rights and protected
To have a consistent moral philosophy, a characteristic
must be found that not only allows for the inclusion of all humans, but
also distinguishes between a wax dummy and an infant. This rights-granting
characteristic must be morally relevant. The only characteristic that
simply and consistently meets these requirements is the capacity for
As Jeremy Bentham, head of the Department of Jurisprudence at Oxford
University during the 19th Century said in reference to his belief that
animals should be granted rights, "The question is not, `Can they reason?'
nor, `Can they talk?' But rather, `Can they suffer?'"
If a being cannot suffer, then it does not matter to that being what
happens to it. For example, some computers have an intelligence (in some
ways greater than any human), but these machines do not care whether they
are turned off, harmed, or even destroyed.
On the other hand, if a being is sentient - able to experience pleasure
and pain - then it does matter to that being what happens to it.
Irrespective of intelligence, language, etc., a sentient being has
interests in its existence - at the least, to avoid pain and to stay alive
- and any complete moral philosophy cannot ignore these concerns.
Animals don't feel pain
Historically, many philosophers and
scientists ended any discussion of ethics and animals by stating that
animals cannot feel pain. That this idea is still held by people today is
what prompted noted scientist and Pulitzer-prize winner, Dr. Carl Sagan,
along with Dr. Ann Druyan, to write in their book, Shadows of Forgotten
Humans - who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals
- have had an understandable penchant for pretending that animals do not
feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and `animals' is essential
if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat
them - without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret.
It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other
animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other
animals renders such pretensions specious.
They are just too much like us.
The nervous systems of all vertebrate animals, including humans,
operate in the same manner. All these animals are capable of feeling pain
and fear, which has led many researchers to use other animals in "pain
research." Indeed, most people understand that animals are capable of
suffering, and oppose inflicting "unnecessary" suffering on them.
Other animals also have an active desire to live, and the act of
depriving them of life or freedom is harming them in many of the same ways
a human is harmed when deprived of life or freedom. Animals show us they
value their lives and that they want to stay alive by their struggles
against adversity, threats, and slaughter. While some animals do not
always make the best decisions in order to stay alive, and some even
appear to commit suicide, the same can be said of some humans to whom we
There are those who still believe that there is no evidence that
animals value their lives because they have not said so in English or
another human language. These people must admit, however, that the same is
true of human infants.
Some would say having a God-given soul is what gives one
rights. However, like the label "human," those in power have historically
denied souls to women and other groups of individuals. Even if God did
grant souls to humans while not to other animals, the animals have the
capacity to feel pain and the desire to live. It would require a cruel God
to create beings with these capacities whose only purpose was to suffer at
the hands of humans. As Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland has written:
To one whose mind is free, there is something more intolerable in the
suffering of animals then in the suffering of men. For with the latter, it
is at least admitted that suffering is evil and the man who causes it is a
criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day
without a shadow of remorse. It cries vengeance upon all the human race.
If God exists and tolerates it, it cries vengeance upon God. If there
exists a good God, then even the most humble of living things must be
saved. If God is good only to the strong, if there is no justice for the
weak and lowly, for the poor creatures who are offered up as a sacrifice
to humanity, then there is no such thing as goodness, no such thing as
While many people grant rights to some beings
and not to others based only on the majority interpretation of their
individual religious doctrine, secularists who accept that all humans have
rights yet reject the idea that any non- human animals have rights must
also be basing their moral code on faith. As there is no objective
criteria for discriminating all humans from all other animals, these
secularists must believe in an intangible, unmeasurable, and undefinable
"humanness" that somehow confers rights.
Some contend that since some people, such as Eskimos, must
kill animals to survive, killing animals is acceptable. This excuse raises
the hypothetical question of if Eskimos, or another group, "had" to kill
other Homo Sapiens to survive, would it be morally acceptable to deny
rights to Homo Sapiens?
Even if Eskimos would starve to death if they did not kill other
animals, that is not the case for people in our society who kill and eat
animals out of habit and taste. In today's world, eating animals is not a
case of survival.
Furthermore, if everyone were to base their actions and morality on
what Eskimos do, then vivisection and factory farming would have to be
abolished, since the Eskimos do neither. Each one of us could no longer
pay someone to raise and murder animals to satisfy our taste for flesh,
but would instead have to hunt and kill for our own meals.
Animals killing each other
Some say it is "natural" to kill and
therefore okay. However, one would be hard pressed to view our modern
systems of animal agriculture or experimentation as natural.
While it is true that some animals kill other animals in nature, moral
philosophy is based on principles, not excused by the lack of morality in
others. Some humans assault, rape, or kill other humans, yet we do not
condone these actions. Not all other animals act with savagery and
amorality; there are many examples of animals acting compassionately. Most
of the animals we exploit (e.g., cows, pigs, mice) do not kill other
It would seem that if we cannot define our own ethics and are looking
elsewhere for models of morality, we would follow the best examples, not
seek out the worst.
The real reasons
Philosophically, the arguments against granting
rights to other animals addressed above are interesting. But
realistically, they are a smokescreen for the real reasons animals are
exploited. It is important to address the real reasons animals are used by
our society - not to skirt the above-mentioned arguments, but to
illuminate the situations that create so much suffering.
Appeals to Emotion as Justification for Vivisection
People kill animals in order to make money. Although many animals in
the United States are killed by the already wealthy, there are some who
meagerly "make a living" doing it. It is these people who evoke the
sympathies of the public, thereby justifying the entire exploitative
system. However, with a little ingenuity, anyone in our society could
exist without killing animals. Making money does not serve as a good
excuse for owning slaves or robbing banks, nor does it serve as an
excuse for exploiting other animals.
People pay others to kill animals for food because of an acquired
taste. Animals must pay the ultimate price of suffering and death to
satisfy our refusal to challenge our taste buds.
People pay others to kill animals for fur (by trapping, anal or
vaginal electrocution, etc.) because it is a sign that they have money
and are fashionable and because fur is warm. Animals suffer and die so
that these people can impress others. As far as the warmth of fur -
there are plenty of other warm materials and most people stay warm
without having to kill animals.
People exploit animals for entertainment. Animals suffer and die
because people like to hunt/kill (sometimes because they feel they need
an excuse to be out in nature), or because people like to watch animals
kill each other through cock and dog fighting. Some like to see humans
asserting their dominance over animals in rodeos, mule- diving acts,
etc. Some people in the film industry think their movie is so important
that it is okay to make animals suffer and die for the making of it.
Others force horses and dogs to race in order to make their gambling
more interesting or because it's fun to watch (this led to over 800
horses dying on racetracks in 1992). Many greyhounds are killed once
they are too old to race. Animals in circuses also suffer deprivation,
isolation, and "training" in order to provide entertainment for humans.
- People pay others to vivisect animals in hopes that these animals'
deaths may benefit them or other humans. People who favor exploiting
animals in medical research give additional arguments to those addressed
daughter Claire who has cystic fibrosis, Jane McCabe wrote in Newsweek
(Dec. 26, 1988): "If you had to choose between saving a very cute dog or
my equally cute, blond, brown-eyed daughter, whose life would you choose?
... It's not that I don't love animals, it's that I love Claire more."
In Behavioral and Brain Sciences (March 1980), J. Gray defends the use
of animals in research with a hypothetical scenario: Suppose there is a
burning building with two babies inside. The mother of one of the children
must choose to save one baby from the burning building. Gray argues that
it is "moral" for the woman to save her child instead of another child.
These two examples are attempts to show that people are acting morally
when they condone the exploitation and/or killing of animals in research.
However, it would be difficult to show that the actions of McCabe or Gray
are based on principles we would want to use as rules for everyone's
Jane McCabe says it is acceptable to kill other animals for the
possible benefit of her daughter because she loves her daughter more than
she loves other animals. But a morality based on a hierarchy of love is
not consistent, practical, or just.
What if Ms. McCabe were to say, "If you had to choose between saving a
very cute Canadian or my equally cute, blonde, brown-eyed daughter, whose
life would you choose? ... It's not that I don't love Canadians, it's just
that I love Claire more"? What if everyone thought: "You can take the life
of any being as long as the killing may benefit someone you love (value)
Most parents love their child more than another person's child. Indeed,
most people love their dog more than they love unfamiliar children, as
they spend more money on the dog than they donate to help needy, starving
children. They are more deeply saddened by the death of their dog than the
death of an unfamiliar child. This does not mean the dog has rights and
the child does not. Nor should it mean someone has the right to use the
less- valued child for the benefit of the more-valued dog.
Many people view vivisection as a
morally-defensible trade-off between lives. For example, the transplant
surgeon involved in experiments such as the baboon heart/Baby Faye
operation assumes that the life of one human is worth more than that of
one baboon (ignoring the fact that no inter-species transplant has ever
proven successful). The issue of inter-species transplants most clearly
demonstrates the problem of determining morality from a utilitarian
algebra of worth where lives are exchanged.
Looking for exchanging lives for the "greater good," there are numerous
situations where taking the life of one human would save the lives of a
number of other humans, and thereby lessen the overall suffering of
humans. Using equations to determine the morality of actions, it would be
acceptable to take the life of one healthy human infant to continue the
lives of two other infants in need of organs. Indeed, arguing from the
perspective of worth, importance, or priorities, taking the life of one
infant to extend the lives of two would be imperative. If this is not
considered to be acceptable, is the first infant then "more important"
than the two who are allowed to die?
Most people will agree that it is wrong to sacrifice one human for the
"greater good" of others because it would violate their right to live. But
when it comes to sacrificing animals, the assumption is that human beings
have this right to live while animals do not. Yet there is no moral reason
to deny animals the same rights that protect individual humans from being
sacrificed for the common good.
Your baby and your dog
The real dilemma for vivisection is not one
of whether to save either an animal or a human, as Gray would have one
believe. The actual question is whether or not to kill many healthy
animals in the hope of possibly saving a human (or humans). An even more
realistic view is that vivisection is killing many healthy animals and
utilizing tremendous resources (resources that could be used to benefit
those already sick and dying) in a vain attempt to prolong the lives of
some humans for a short period.
Indeed, Neal Barnard, MD compares animal research to being in a
lifeboat with 100 dogs, seeing a baby drowning in the water, and throwing
the 100 dogs in the water to drown with the baby.
Might makes right
The children whom the Jane McCabes of the world
hold up to defend vivisection have done nothing to deserve their fate of
disease. It is precisely these children's innocence that makes their
plight so heartrending. However, anyone who respects justice must also ask
what animals have done to deserve being imprisoned in cages, being
infected with our diseases, and being carved up in our labs. No one would
suggest that these animals "deserve" to be exploited and killed in
experiments. Rather, we kill these innocent beings because we can, not
because they deserve to die. We have the power to use weaker beings, so we
do, following the assumption that might makes right.
We are capable of many actions that most of us think are unacceptable.
White people were capable of enslaving black people. Men are capable of
raping women. Non-elderly adults are capable of abusing both young and old
alike. Whatever it is that makes us view these things as unacceptable, one
thing seems clear: As moral beings, we have the capacity for acting and
expecting others to act by rules that are not based on the principle that
you can do whatever you like as long as you can get away with it.
If the tables were turned on us and we were the
weaker beings used for experiments, we might not be as accepting of the
philosophy might makes right.
It is not difficult to imagine beings more powerful than we are coming
to our planet because they felt they could benefit their "greater good" by
using us in medical experiments or for spare organs. After the way we have
treated the less-powerful here, how could we claim that these more
powerful and technologically superior beings should not use us?
Putting people first
Still, many people follow a faith that humans
are more important than other animals. These people see any discussion of
"animal rights" as an infringement on their "right" to exploit animals for
their benefit. They claim that the mere idea of recognizing the rights of
animals "degrades" humans, and that animal rights activists believe that
"animals are more important than people."
Similarly, the pro-slavery whites claimed that abolitionists considered
blacks to be more important than whites, and that granting the slaves
freedom infringed on their right to own them.
People who argue in favor of animal exploitation sometimes claim that
animal rights activists are anti-science. However, many of the advances in
developing new, non-animal research techniques has been promoted in an
effort to advance science beyond the medieval levels of sacrificing other
animals. In this time of advanced computers, tissue samples, and chemical
assays, those who claim that all progress will come to a halt if they are
not allowed to kill other animals could be seen as anti-science and
preventing real advances.
Others try to say that activists believe that animals are more
important than humans, and want humans to be used in experiments. As
humans are also animals, it should be clear that a moral philosophy
granting rights to all sentient beings would not allow for the use of any
sentient being, human or non, in medical experimentation against their
Unfortunately, the philosophy of "might makes right" has indeed led to
using humans in experimentation:
Following World War II, German doctors were tried in Nuremberg for
experimenting on prisoners. They explained that this practice was the
"logical" continuation of vivisection - to benefit the German people,
sacrifices had to be made. These were neither storm troopers nor the SS,
but respected physicians, the leading medical authorities of Germany,
including the president of the German Red Cross.
Although it may be tempting to believe that the use of humans in
medical experiments without their full and comprehending consent is a rare
event which occurs only in other countries, the list of experiments
performed on human beings in the United States fills entire books, such as
Human Guinea Pigs, by Dr. M. Pappworth. One of these experiments entailed
fully submersing infants in water to find that "Often the ingestion of
fluid is considerable, and the infant would cough or otherwise show
respiratory disturbances when taken out of the water."
In the 1940s, more than 700 women in search of pre-natal care became
subjects in a government radiation experiment which led to cancerous
deaths of some of the children. All documents about the experiment were
destroyed in the 1970s. In addition to this, other citizens have been used
around the country for studies of the effects of radiation (as well as
mustard gas and LSD), a practice that is defended even today by doctors
involved, including Patricia Durbin, who stated, "Maybe we skirted ethics
a little, but not much."
This should not be surprising, because even today many scientists do
not believe science should have anything to do with morality. The quest
for "truth" is most important, and if understanding human disease is the
goal, the use of humans as experimental victims is logical and necessary.
Animal rights terrorists
Some attempt to discredit the entire
animal rights movement as being comprised of "terrorists." This unfounded
distortion is an attempt to ignore the moral issues surrounding the use
and abuse of animals by focusing on a few acts of property destruction
perpetrated by a small number of individuals.
While no blanket statement can be made about every person concerned
about animals, in general the people working for animal rights have a
great respect for individual sentient life, and do not advocate violence
to advance the cause of justice.
However, just as being an advocate of human rights does not necessarily
imply that one advocates strict non- violence, neither does being an
animal-rights activist. Many issues, such as the holocaust in Nazi
Germany, have not been receptive to internal, legal, non-violent protest.
Given the great amount of suffering and terror being inflicted on innocent
sentient beings in laboratories and slaughterhouses, it is ironic to label
as "terrorism" the act of property destruction.
Emotions and morality
Just as tradition, habit, or aesthetics
cannot be used to rationalize actions, a consistent and just system of
ethics cannot be based on individual emotional responses to situations.
However, a respectful and non-exploitative relationship with the other
animals of the world is supported by our emotions. The suffering of
animals is heartrending to most, and few argue against "humane" treatment
of animals. Many people change their diets when confronted with the
reality of modern factory farming, while others go out of their way to
avoid learning about what goes on behind closed doors. Those who work in
slaughterhouses are subject to the highest rate of turnover of any
Today, the distance between what is acceptable to the public as
treatment of an animal and what is the actual, institutionalized treatment
of these animals is greater than ever. This is why slaughterhouses are
hidden away from populated areas. This is why vivisectors' labs are closed
and locked. This is why the meetings of institutionalized animal care
committees, which are supposed to oversee the use of animals in
experiments, are not open to the public.
For the love of animals
There are many who claim that while they
love animals and don't want them to suffer, they are unwilling to give up
their prejudice of human superiority. Many scientists fall into this
category, claiming they use animals only when it is "absolutely necessary
to save human lives." Ignoring the question of whether or not their
contention of necessity is accurate, these people are betrayed by their
actions. Their pious claims of only inflicting "necessary" suffering are
propaganda, for how many vegetarian vivisectors are there? It can hardly
be argued that it is necessary for them to pay someone to raise and
slaughter an animal when so many people thrive on a vegetarian diet.
Indeed, if the vivisectors were truly concerned with human health, they
would promote a vegetarian diet, which has been shown in study after study
to combat and prevent the majority of diseases in the United States,
extending life expectancy and increasing the quality of living. Yet the
vivisectors' "love" for animals and "concern" for human health does not
supersede their love for the taste of flesh, and their "philosophy"
remains one of might makes right.
In general, the animal welfarist position, which has been endorsed (but
not truly adopted in practice) by the American meat industry and
pro-vivisection groups, is at odds with a truly respectful relationship
based on the rights of other animals. Welfarists concede that animals have
interests, but these animals remain human property. Thus the fundamental
interests of the animals remain secondary to any interests of the owner.
Laws based on the welfarist position, such as the federal Animal Welfare
Act, have proven to be useless in every practical sense, as any use/abuse
of an animal is allowed if deemed "necessary" by the animal's owner.
Trying to legislate a "humane" balance between the interests of animals
and the interests of humans sounds good in principle and appeals to most
voters. However, given that the current system still allows such
atrocities as captive pigeon shoots, facial branding, castration without
anesthesia, factory farms, pain experiments, etc., the abuse of other
animals will continue until the current system recognizes that animals are
sentient beings whose rights are independent of the interests of humans.
Most people have a well-defined set of ethics when
dealing with other humans. This is why it is possible to effectively use
infants and impaired humans as stand-ins for other animals within the
rights-based morality. While this paradigm reveals the central role
sentience plays in any consistent and just system of ethics, it discards
the uniqueness, richness, and diversity of the lives of these animals.
Although granting and respecting the interests and subsequent rights our
fellow beings deserve is certainly the beginning and most important aspect
of our relationship with these animals, it is by no means the end. There
is much to be learned.
Even though rights can only be granted consistently and justly on the
basis of the capacity to suffer and not on the ability to make moral
choices, there is ample evidence that many animals can and do make moral
choices, often to the shame of rights-bearing and "superior" humans. Carl
Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, relate
In the annals of primate ethics, there are some accounts that have the
ring of parable. In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were
willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose
agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved.
After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the
chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so - 87% preferred to go
hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than
hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous
experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social
status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to
If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the
macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves - suffering
from real hunger rather than causing pain to others - our own moral
sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us
to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order
to save others - even those who are not close kin. By conventional human
standards, these macaques - who have never gone to Sunday school, never
heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high
school civics lesson - seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their
courageous resistance to evil. Among these macaques, at least in this
case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive
humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as
well? (Especially when there is an authority figure urging us to
administer the electric shocks, we humans are disturbingly willing to
cause pain - and for a reward much more paltry than food is for a starving
macaque [cf. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental
Overview].) In human history there are a precious few whose memory we
revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each
of them, there are multitudes who did nothing.
If animals can feel pain as humans can, and desire to live as humans
do, how can they not be granted similar respect? As moral beings, how can
we justify our continued exploitation of them? We must stand up against
the idea that might makes right. We must question the status quo which
allows the unquestioned infliction of so much suffering. We must act from
our own ethics, rather than blindly follow what we are told.
Discussing the macaque monkeys who chose to starve rather than inflict
pain on another, Drs. Sagan and Druyan conclude, "Might we have a more
optimistic view of the human future if we were sure our ethics were up to
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