AR Philosophy > Morality Index

Beyond Might Makes Right
by Matthew Ball and Jack Norris

A Philosophical Essay Concerning the Rights of Animals with special treatment to the subject of animals in experimentation.
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 characteristics.

This argument of degrees has two problems:  

    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.
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.

Potential characteristics

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.

Biological rights

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:  

    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?
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).

The law

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 from exploitation.

Suffering

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 suffering.

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 Ancestors:

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 grant rights.

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.

The soul

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 justice.... Secularist's faith

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.

Eskimos

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 animals.

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. 

    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 above.
Appeals to Emotion as Justification for Vivisection

Concerning her 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 behavior.

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) more"?

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.

Utilitarianism

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. Higher beings

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 will.

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 profession.

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.

Animal morality

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 the following:

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 hurt others.

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 their standards?"


Vegan Outreach is a non-profit group working to end the exploitation of animals. Please contact us for more information, to volunteer, or to become a member. Donations are welcome and go to further action and information in the cause of justice.

Contact Vegan Outreach, 10410 Forbes Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15235, or your local animal rights organization for more information concerning the scientific aspects of vivisection or other animal issues. For more information on the philosophy of animal liberation, read Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, and The Case for Animal Rights, by Tom Regan.

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