#11 There is no
correct or incorrect in morals; you have yours and I have mine, right? (3
1. This position, known as moral relativism, is quite ancient but
became fashionable at the turn of the century, as reports on the customs of societies
alien to those found in Europe became available. It fell out of fashion, after the Second
World War, although it is occasionally revived. Ethical propositions, we are asked to
believe, are no more than statements of personal opinion and, therefore, cannot carry
The main problem with this position is that ethical relativists are
unable to denounce execrable ethical practices, such as racism. On what grounds can they
condemn (if at all) Hitler's ideas on racial purity? Are we to believe that he was
uttering an ethical truth when advocating the Final Solution?
In addition to the inability to denounce practices of other societies,
the relativists are unable to counter the arguments of even those whose society they
share. They cannot berate someone who proposes to raise and kill infants for industrial
pet food consumption, for example, if that person sees it as morally sound. Indeed, they
cannot articulate the concept of societal moral progress, since they lack a basis for
judging progress. There is no point in turning to the relativists for advice on ethical
issues such as euthanasia, infanticide, or the use of fetuses in research.
Faced with such arguments, ethical relativists sometimes argue that
ethical truth is based on the beliefs of a society; ethical truth is seen as nothing more
than a reflection of societal customs and habits. Butchering animals is acceptable in the
West, they would say, because the majority of people think it so.
They are on no firmer ground here. Are we to accept that chattel
slavery was right before the US Civil War and wrong thereafter? Can all ethical decisions
be decided by conducting opinion polls?
It is true that different societies have different practices that might
be seen as ethical by one and unethical by the other. However, these differences result
from differing circumstances. For example, in a society where mere survival is key, the
diversion of limited food to an infant could detract significantly from the well-being of
the existing family members that contribute to food gathering. Given that, infanticide may
be the ethically correct course.
The conclusion is that there is such a thing as ethical truth
(otherwise, ethics becomes vacuous and devoid of proscriptive force). The continuity of
thought, then, between those who reject the evils of slavery, racial discrimination, and
gender bias, and those who denounce the evils of speciesism becomes striking.
2. Many AR advocates (including myself) believe that morality is relative.
We believe that AR is much more cogently argued when it is argued from the standpoint of
your opponent's morality, not some mythical, hard-to-define universal morality. In arguing
against moral absolutism, there is a very simple objection: Where does this absolute
morality come from? Moral absolutism is an argument from authority, a tautology. If there
were such a thing as "ethical truth", then there must be a way of determining
it, and obviously there isn't. In the absence of a known proof of "ethical
truth", I don't know how AECW can conclude it exists.
An example of the method of leveraging a person's morality is to ask
the person why he has compassion for human beings. Almost always he will agree that his
compassion does not stem from the fact that: 1) humans use language, 2) humans compose
symphonies, 3) humans can plan in the far future, 4) humans have a written, technological
culture, etc. Instead, he will agree that it stems from the fact that humans can suffer,
feel pain, be harmed, etc. It is then quite easy to show that nonhuman animals can also
suffer, feel pain, be harmed, etc. The person's arbitrary inconsistency in not according
moral status to nonhumans then stands out starkly. --JEH
3. There is a middle ground between the positions of AECW and JEH. One can
assert that just as mathematics is necessarily built upon a set of unprovable axioms, so
is a system of ethics. At the foundation of a system of ethics are moral axioms, such as
"unnecessary pain is wrong". Given the set of axioms, methods of reasoning (such
as deduction and induction), and empirical facts, it is possible to derive ethical
hypotheses. It is in this sense that an ethical statement can be said to be true. Of
course, one can disagree about the axioms, and certainly such disagreement renders ethics
"relative", but the concept of ethical truth is not meaningless.
Fortunately, the most fundamental ethical axioms seem to be nearly
universally accepted, usually because they are necessary for societies to function. Where
differences exist, they can be elucidated and discussed, in a style similar to the
"leveraging" described by JEH. --DG
"To a man whose mind is free there is something even more
intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of man. For with the
latter it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a
criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of
remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous. And that is the
unpardonable crime." --Romain Rolland (author, Nobel 1915)
#12 The animals are raised to be eaten; so what is wrong with that?
This question has always seemed to me to be a fancy version of
"But we want to do these things, so what is wrong with that?" The idea that an
act, by virtue of an intention of ours, can be exonerated morally is totally illogical.
But worse than that, however, is the fact that such a belief is a
dangerous position to take because it can enable one to justify some practices that are
universally condemned. To see how this is so, consider the following restatement of the
basis of the question: "Suffering can be excused so long as we breed them for the
purpose." Now, cannot an analogous argument be used to defend a group of slave
holders who breed and enslave humans and justify it by saying "but they're bred to be
our workers"? Could not the Nazis defend their murder of the Jews by saying "but
we rounded them up to be killed"? --DG
"Shame on such a morality that is worthy of pariahs, and that
fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing, and shines forth
with inscrutable significance from all eyes that see the sun!"
"But I really just don't care about chickens. I don't care if they are boiled alive--they're only chickens. Why should I care?"
Remember to think about motivation and to grant that the other person is reachable. It then becomes easier to construct a reply. Resonate with what they say--maybe you used to be that way and can understand the sentiment. People like to feel heard. And ask for more information rather than just launching into a monologue.
You may choose to say, "Well, I know what you mean. I didn't used to care about chickens either. Do you care about cruelty to dogs and cats?" After they reply, you'll be able to explain how farmed animals are the same as cats and dogs in their ability to feel pain and to suffer, and that they are individuals who don't want to be intensively confined and violently killed.
But let's say they continue with, "No, I really don't care about animals at all."
You may choose to say, "I hear what you're saying, but for me, it's not about that. I have some friends who aren't animal lovers, but they have adopted a vegetarian diet anyway, simply because they're opposed to violence and cruelty. Animals on factory farms have their bodies mutilated, they're never able to do anything that is natural to them, and they're cooped up in their own waste for their entire lives. Chickens are bred and drugged to grow so quickly that they become crippled under their own weight. I think that if you could see how bad it is, you wouldn't want to support it. I know this may seem like an odd question, but why do you eat meat?"
Other common rationalizations:
"Animals eat one another in nature, so why shouldn't we eat them?"
"Aren't humans at the top of the food chain?"
"Aren't humans omnivores?"
You may choose to say, "I hear what you're saying, and I used to feel that way, too. But then I realized that in all other aspects of our lives, we don't rely on the law of the jungle, the idea that ?might makes right,' to determine our moral values. Wouldn't you agree that we should have laws to protect dogs and cats from being abused?" Once you get their assent on that point, you can point out that farmed animals have no legal protection, that what happens to them would be illegal if they were dogs or cats, and move on, perhaps, to say something like, "Like you, I don't support murder, even though animals do fight territorial battles to the death. And no ethical person endorses rape, even though some animals rape as a method of procreation. As humans, we have the ability to be kind, rather than cruel. And of course, there is nothing natural about factory farming; these places are about as unnatural as you can get--mass cruelty, mass abuse, mass torture. Chickens are bred and drugged to grow so quickly that their legs become crippled beneath them--talk about unnatural! Does that make sense to you?"
Here you grant that the question makes sense, find some common ground in combating the argument with things that the other person will resonate with, and then steer the discussion back to cruelty.
#13 But isn't it true that the animals wouldn't exist if we didn't
raise them for slaughter?
There are two ways to interpret this question. First, the
questioner may be referring to "the animals" as a species, in which case the
argument might be more accurately phrased as follows:
"The ecological niche of cows is to be farmed; they get continued
survival in this niche in return for our using them."
Second, the questioner may be referring to "the animals" as
individuals, in which case the phrasing might be:
"The individual cows that we raise to eat would not have had a
life had we not done so."
We deal first with the species interpretation and then with the
individuals interpretation. The questioner's argument applies presumably to all species of
animals; to make things more concrete, we will take cows as an example in the following
It is incorrect to assert that cows could continue to exist only if we
farm them for human consumption. First, today in many parts of India and elsewhere, humans
and cows are engaged in a reciprocal and reverential relationship. It is only in recent
human history that this relationship has been corrupted into the one-sided exploitation
that we see today. There IS a niche for cows between slaughter/consumption and extinction.
(The interested reader may find the book Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin quite enlightening
on this subject.)
Second, several organizations have programs for saving animals from
extinction. There is no reason to suppose that cows would not qualify.
The species argument is also flawed because, in fact, our intensive
farming of cattle results in habitat destruction and the loss of other species. For
example, clearing of rain forests for pasture has led to the extinction of countless
species. Cattle farming is destroying habitats on six continents. Why is the questioner so
concerned about the cow species while being unconcerned about these other species?
Could it have anything to do with the fact that he wants to continue to
eat the cows?
Finally, a strong case can be made against the species argument from
ethical theory. Arguments similar to the questioner's could be developed that would ask us
to accept practices that are universally condemned. For example, consider a society that
breeds a special race of humans for use as slaves. They argue that the race would not
exist if they did not breed them for use as slaves. Does the reader accept this
Now we move on to the individuals interpretation of the question. One
attempt to refute the argument is to answer as follows: "It is better not to be born
than to be born into a life of misery and early death."
To many, this is sufficient. However, one could argue that the fact
that the life is miserable before death is not necessary. Suppose that the cows are
treated well before being killed painlessly and eaten. Is it not true that the individual
cows would not have enjoyed their short life had we not raised them for consumption?
Furthermore, what if we compensate the taking of the life by bringing a new life into
Peter Singer originally believed that this argument was absurd because
there are no cow souls waiting around to be born. Many people accept this view and
consider it sufficient, but Singer now rejects it because he accepts that to bring a being
to a pleasant life does confer a benefit on that being. (There is extensive discussion of
this issue in the second edition of Animal Liberation.) How then are we to proceed? The
key is that the AR movement asserts that humans and nonhumans have a right to not be
killed by humans. The ethical problem can be seen clearly by applying the argument to
humans. Consider the case of a couple that gives birth to an infant and eats it at the age
of nine months, just when their next infant is born. A 9-month old baby has no more
rational knowledge of its situation or future plans than does a cow, so there is no reason
to distinguish the two cases. Yet, certainly, we would condemn the couple. We condemn them
because the infant is an individual to whom we confer the right not to be killed. Why is
this right not accorded to the cow? I think the answer is that the questioner wants to eat
"It were much better that a sentient being should never have
existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery."
Bysshe Shelley (poet)
#14 Don't the animals we use have a happier life since they are fed and
This argument was used to claim that black people were better
off as slaves on plantations than as free men and women. The same could also be said of
people in prison, yet prison is considered one of society's harshest punishments. Animals
on factory farms suffer so much that it is inconceivable that they could be worse off in
the wild. The wild isn't to the animals who live there; it's their home. There they have
their freedom and can engage in their natural activities. The fact that they might suffer
in the wild is no reason to ensure that they suffer in captivity.
The questioner makes two assumptions here. First, that
happiness or contentment accrues from being fed and protected, and second, that the
animals are, in fact, fed and protected. Both of these premises can be questioned.
Certainly the animals are fed; after all, they must be fattened for
consumption. It is very difficult to see any way that, say, factory-farmed chickens are
"protected". They are not protected from mutilation, because they are painfully
debeaked. They are not protected from psychological distress, because they are crowded
together in unnatural conditions. And finally, they are not protected from predation,
because they are slaughtered and eaten by humans.
We can also question the notion that happiness accrues from feeding and
protection alone. The Roman galley slaves were fed and protected from the elements;
nevertheless, they would presumably trade their condition for one of greater uncertainty
to obtain happiness. The same can be said of the slaves of earlier America.
Finally, an ethical argument is relevant here. Consider again the
couple of question #13. They will feed and protect their infant up to the point at which
they consume it. We would not accept this as a justification. Why should we accept it for
the chicken? --DG
#15 Is the use of service animals and beasts of burden considered
A simple approach to this question might be to suggest that we
all must work for a living and it should be no different for animals. The problem is that
we want to look at the animals as like children, i.e., worthy of the same protections and
rights, and, like them, incapable of being morally responsible. But we don't force
children into labor! One can make a distinction, however, that goes something like this:
The animals are permanently in their diminished state (i.e., incapable of voluntarily
assenting to work); children are not. We do not impose a choice of work for children
because they need the time to develop into their full adult and moral selves. With the
animals, we choose for them a role that allows them to contribute; in return, we do not
abuse them by eating them, etc. If this is done with true concern that their work
conditions are appropriate and not of a sweat-shop nature, that they get enough rest and
leisure time, etc., this would constitute a form of stewardship that is acceptable and
beneficial to both sides, and one that is not at odds with AR philosophy. --DG
#16 Doesn't the Bible give Humanity dominion over the animals?
Dominion is not the same as tyranny. The Queen of
England has dominion over her subjects, but that doesn't mean she can eat them, or wear
them, or experiment on them. If we have dominion over animals, surely it is to protect
them, not to use them for our own ends. There is nothing in the Bible that would justify
our modern-day practices that desecrate the environment, destroy entire species of
wildlife, and inflict torment and death on billions of animals every year. The Bible
imparts a reverence for life; a loving God could not help but be appalled at the way many
animals are treated.
It is true that the Bible contains a passage that confers on
humanity dominion over the animals. The import of this fact derives from the assumption
that the Bible is the word of God, and that God is the ultimate moral authority. Leaving
aside for the moment consideration of the meaning of dominion, we can take issue with the
idea of seeking moral authority from the Bible. First, there are serious problems with the
interpretation of Biblical passages, with many verses contradicting one another, and with
many scholars differing dramatically over the meaning of given verses.
Second, there are many claims to God-hood among the diverse cultures of
this world; some of these Gods implore us to respect all life and to not kill
unnecessarily. Whose God are we to take as the ultimate moral authority?
Finally, as Tom Regan observes, many people do not believe in a God and
so appeals to His moral authority are empty for such people. For such people, the validity
of judgments of the supposed God must be cross-checked with other methods of determining
reasonableness. What are the cross-checks for the Biblical assertions?
These remarks apply equally to other assertions of Biblical approval of
human practices (such as the consumption of animals).
Even if we accept that the God of the Bible is a moral authority, we
can point out that "dominion" is a vague term, meaning "stewardship"
or "control over". It is quite easy to argue that appropriate stewardship or
control consists of respecting the life of animals and their right to live according to
their own nature. The jump from dominion to approval of our brutal exploitation of animals
is not contained in the cited Biblical passage, either explicitly or implicitly. --DG
#17 Morals are a purely human construction (animals don't understand
morals); doesn't that mean it is not rational to apply our morality to animals?
Animals' inability to understand and adhere to our
rules is as irrelevant as a child or mentally handicapped person's inability to do so.
The fallaciousness of this argument can be easily demonstrated
by making a simple substitution: Infants and young children don't understand morals,
doesn't that mean it is not rational to apply our morality to them? Of course not. We
refrain from harming infants and children for the same reasons that we do so for adults.
That they are incapable of conceptualizing a system of morals and its benefits is
The relevant distinction is formalized in the concept of "moral
agents" versus "moral patients". A moral agent is an individual possessing
the sophisticated conceptual ability to bring moral principles to bear in deciding what to
do, and having made such a decision, having the free will to choose to act that way. By
virtue of these abilities, it is fair to hold moral agents accountable for their acts. The
paradigmatic moral agent is the normal adult human being.
Moral patients, in contrast, lack the capacities of moral agents and
thus cannot fairly be held accountable for their acts. They do, however, possess the
capacity to suffer harm and therefore are proper objects of consideration for moral
agents. Human infants, young children, the mentally deficient or deranged, and nonhuman
animals are instances of moral patienthood.
Given that nonhuman animals are moral patients, they fall within the
purview of moral consideration, and therefore it is quite rational to accord them the same
moral consideration that we accord to ourselves. --DG
#18 If AR people are so worried about killing, why don't they become
Killing, per se, is not the central concern of AR philosophy,
which is concerned with the avoidance of unnecessary pain and suffering. Thus, because
plants neither feel pain nor suffer, AR philosophy does not mandate fruitarianism (a diet
in which only fruits are eaten because they can be harvested without killing the plant
from which they issue). --DG