Visitor:

Animal Protection > AR FAQs
AR Philosophy > Morality of AR > Biology - Index

Animal Rights FAQs Related to Biology


#33 Humans are at the pinnacle of evolution; doesn't that give them the right to use animals as they wish?

#34 Humans are at the top of the food chain; aren't they therefore justified in killing and eating anything?

#35 Animals are just machines; why worry about them?

#36 In Nature, animals kill and eat each other; so why should it be wrong for humans?

#37 Natural selection and Darwinism are at work in the world; doesn't that mean it's unrealistic to try to overcome such forces?

#38 Isn't AR opposed to environmental philosophy (as described, for example, in "Deep Ecology")?


#33 Humans are at the pinnacle of evolution; doesn't that give them the right to use animals as they wish?

This is one of many arguments that attempt to draw ethical conclusions from scientific observations. In this case, the science is shaky, and the ethical conclusion is dubious. Let us first examine the science.

The questioner's view is that evolution has created a linear ranking of general fitness, a ladder if you will, with insects and other "lower" species at the bottom, and humans (of course!) at the top. This idea originated as part of a wider, now discredited evolutionary system called Lamarckism. Charles Darwin's discovery of natural selection overturned this system. Darwin's picture, instead, is of a "radiating bush" of species, with each evolving to adapt more closely to its environment, along its own radius. Under this view, the idea of a pinnacle becomes unclear: yes, humans have adapted well to their niche (though many would dispute this, asserting the nonsustainable nature of our use of the planet's resources), but so have bacteria adapted well to their niche. Can we really say that humans are better adapted to their niche than bacteria, and would it mean anything when the niches are so different?

Probably, what the questioner has in mind in using the word "pinnacle" is that humans excel in some particular trait, and that a scale can be created relative to this trait. For example, on a scale of mental capability, humans stand well above bacteria. But a different choice of traits can lead to very different results. Bacteria stand "at the pinnacle" when one looks at reproductive fecundity. Birds stand "at the pinnacle" when one looks at flight.

Now let us examine the ethics. Leaving aside the dubious idea of a pinnacle of evolution, let us accept that humans are ranked at the top on a scale of intelligence. Does this give us the right to do as we please with animals, simply on account of their being less brainy? If we say yes, we open a Pandora's box of problems for ourselves. Does this mean that more intelligent humans can also exploit less intelligent humans as they wish (shall we all be slaves to the Einsteins of the world)? Considering a different trait, can the physically superior abuse the weak? Only a morally callous person would agree with this general principle. --AECW

SEE ALSO: #34, #37


#34 Humans are at the top of the food chain; aren't they therefore justified in killing and eating anything?

No; otherwise, potential cannibals in our society could claim the same defense for their practice. That we can do something does not mean that it is right to do so. We have a lot of power over other creatures, but with great powers come even greater responsibilities, as any parent will testify.

Humans are at the top of the food chain because they CHOOSE to eat nonhuman animals. There is thus a suggestion of tautology in the questioner's position. If we chose not to eat animals, we would not be at the top of the food chain.

The idea that superiority in a trait confers rights over the inferior is disposed of in question #33. --AECW

SEE ALSO: #33


#35 Animals are just machines; why worry about them?

Centuries ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes developed the idea that all nonhuman animals are automatons that cannot feel pain. Followers of Descartes believed that if an animal cried out this was just a reflex, the sort of reaction one might get from a mechanical doll. Consequently, they saw no reason not to experiment on animals without anesthetics. Horrified observers were admonished to pay no attention to the screams of the animal subjects.

This idea is now refuted by modern science. Animals are no more "mere machines" than are human beings. Everything science has learned about other species points out the biological similarities between humans and nonhumans. As Charles Darwin wrote, the differences between humans and other animals are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Since both humans and nonhumans evolved over millions of years and share similar nervous systems and other organs, there is no reason to think we do not share a similar mental and emotional life with other animal species (especially mammals). --LK


#36 In Nature, animals kill and eat each other; so why should it be wrong for humans?

Most animals who kill for food could not survive if they did not do so. That is not the case for us. We are better off not eating meat. Also, we do not look to other animals for standards in other areas, so why should we in this case?

Predatory animals must kill to eat. Humans, in contrast, have a choice; they need not eat meat to survive.

Humans differ from nonhuman animals in being capable of conceiving of, and acting in accordance with, a system of morals; therefore, we cannot seek moral guidance or precedent from nonhuman animals. The AR philosophy asserts that it is just as wrong for a human to kill and eat a sentient nonhuman as it is to kill and eat a sentient human.

To demonstrate the absurdity of seeking moral precedents from nonhuman animals, consider the following variants of the question:

"In Nature, animals steal food from each other; so why should it be wrong for humans [to steal]?"

"In Nature, animals kill and eat humans; so why should it be wrong for humans [to kill and eat humans]?" --DG

SEE ALSO: #23, #34, #64


#37 Natural selection and Darwinism are at work in the world; doesn't that mean it's unrealistic to try to overcome such forces?

Assuming that Animal Rights concepts somehow clash with Darwinian forces, the questioner must stand accused of selective moral fatalism: our sense of morality is clearly not modeled on the laws of natural selection. Why, then, feel helpless before some of its effects and not before others?

Male-dominance, xenophobia, and war-mongering are present in many human societies. Should we venture that some mysterious, universal forces must be at work behind them, and that all attempts at quelling such tendencies should be abandoned? Or, more directly, when people become sick, do we abandon them because "survival of the fittest" demands it? We do not abandon them; and we do not agonize about trying to overcome natural selection.

There is no reason to believe that the practical implications of the Animal Rights philosophy are maladaptive for humans. On the contrary, and for reasons explained elsewhere in this FAQ, respecting the rights of animals would yield beneficial side-effects for humans, such as more-sustainable agricultural practices, and better environmental and health-care policies. --AECW

The advent of Darwinism led to a substitution of the idea of individual organisms for the old idea of immutable species. The moral individualism implied by AR philosophy substitutes the idea that organisms should be treated according to their individual capacities for the (old) idea that it is the species of the animal that counts. Thus, moral individualism actually fits well with evolutionary theory. --DG

SEE ALSO: #63-62


#38 Isn't AR opposed to environmental philosophy (as described, for example, in "Deep Ecology")?

No. It should be clear from many of the answers included in this FAQ, and from perusal of many of the books referenced in question #92, that the philosophy and goals of AR are complementary to the goals of the mainstream environmental movement. Michael W. Fox sees AR and environmentalism as two aspects of a dialectic that reconciles concerns for the rights of individuals (human and nonhuman) with concerns for the integrity of the biosphere.

Some argue that a morality based on individual rights is necessarily opposed to one based on holistic environmental views, e.g., the sanctity of the biosphere. However, an environmental ethic that attributes some form of rights to all individuals, including inanimate ones, can be developed. Such an ethic, by showing respect for the individuals that make up the biosphere, would also show respect for the biosphere as a whole, thus achieving the aims of holistic environmentalism. It is clear that a rights view is not necessarily in conflict with a holistic view.

In reference to the concept of deep ecology and the claim that it bears negatively on AR, Fox believes such claims to be unfounded. The following text is excerpted from "Inhumane Society", by Michael W. Fox. --DG

Deep ecologists support the philosophy of preserving the natural abundance and diversity of plants and animals in natural ecosystems... The deep ecologists should oppose the industrialized, nonsubsistence exploitation of wildlife because...it is fundamentally unsound ecologically, because by favoring some species over others, population imbalances and extinctions of undesired species would be inevitable.

In their book "Deep Ecology", authors Bill Devall and George Sessions... take to task animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who with others of like mind "expressed concern that a holistic ecological ethic...results in a kind of totalitarianism or ecological fascism"...In an appendix, however, George Sessions does suggest that philosophers need to work toward nontotalitarian solutions...and that "in all likelihood, this will require some kind of holistic ecological ethic in which the integrity of all individuals (human and nonhuman) is respected".

Ironically, while the authors are so critical of the animal rights movement, they quote Arne Naess (...arguably the founder of the deep ecology movement)...For instance, Naess states: "The intuition of biocentric equality is that all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and to reach their own forms of unfolding and self-realization..." --Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)

SEE ALSO: #28, #59

 

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin, annxtberlin@gmail.com