Animal rights and wrongs

by Rob Tiller

Animal rights should not be a difficult topic, though it plainly is.  We humans are, after all, animals.  Like other animals, we’re part of the great kingdom of life, with kinship relationships to every other species.  Like every species, we have our relative strengths and weaknesses:  we can run faster, manipulate more delicately, observe more acutely than some animals — but others are far superior to us in these and other skills.   Yet we sometimes unthinkingly assume our own superiority, and use that assumption to justify brutality and pointless killing.  In my view, this is wrong.

In general, we think of ourselves as independent individuals, joined by strong ties to families, less strong ties to neighbors, weaker ties to more geographically distant humans, and very weak or no ties to other species.  But even within that thought system, there are exceptions, and they tell us something about our nature.

We love our pets.  Many of us  love them more than certain other humans.   We’ve been taught that other creatures are simply not as important as humans, and so we’re hesitant to admit the strength and extent of our love for these creatures.  We can’t reconcile our feelings of love for our dogs or cats, or gerbils, with the doctrine of human superiority.  Yet it would be unthinkable to kill and eat our beloved pets.

Of course, other animals are different — or are they?   Is there any non-arbitrary reason for singling out some animals for special attention?    Just as we might happen to prefer labradors to dachsunds, we might (and some do) choose as the objects of our affection turtles or rabbits.  As to non-domesticated animals, we may have warm feelings for whales, polar bears, and baby seals, and feel revulsion to spiders.  But these preferences are mostly just matters of taste.  The point is, much of our favoritism for some species over others is not based on the reasoning powers that are often though to elevate us over other species.

It may well be that moral philosophy is at bottom no more than a post hoc defense for intuitions that arise based on evolutionary experience.  David Brooks seems to view this as a fact, to judge from his NYT column this week.

Perhaps our early human or pre-human experience is the best way of understanding our feelings about our relations with other species.  When survival depended on successful hunting, our ancestors did what they had to do.  Their survival instincts are surely part of our inheritance, and they probably affect our feelings about killing “animals.”

But for most of us, survival no longer requires the premeditated, intentional killing of other species.  Our needs and values are different from those of our ancestors of thousands or millions of years ago.   When we attend closely to our feelings, we can sense some of those differences.  We feel that there is something wrong in pointless killing of other species.  We feel revulsion when any animal is subject to harsh, brutal treatment.  At the same time, we are inspired by our occasional intimate links with the non-human world.  We feel most fulfilled as humans when we have loving, harmonious relations with that world.  We know very well that we truly love our pets.  We should expand the circle of that love.