Humanism assigns great value to human beings but what are our moral obligations towards other animals?
On September 20th Roger Haines explored with Farnham Humanists and guests a Humanist perspective on Animal Welfare and Animal Liberation and how this might be different from a religious one.
John De Prey’s report on Roger’s talk:
“Would You Eat Your Neighbour’s Dog?
I find lambs adorable, yet I love a rack of lamb with red current jelly. I would never eat equally adorable Tilly, my neighbour’s dog. Is that a double standard? My personal morality is based on the Golden Rule, “Do to others as I would have others do to me”. But are pigs among those “others”? After all I don’t very much want to be 20% of a supermarket sausage. Am I an animal that can eat other animals because they let me? Or am I morally superior, able to be guided by reason, sense of duty, compassion or simple tenderness?
I had never thought about these things before I heard the talk “Humanism and Animal Welfare” given to Farnham Humanists by Roger Haines. He questioned whether we see ourselves as animals alongside many other species of animal in nature, or as beings midway in a hierarchy that has God above us, and animals beneath us. If we accept the former view, then maybe we must turn to moral philosophy for guidance.
For instance Utilitarianism, he says, holds that a moral act is one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. But are animals included in that number?
On the other hand, Kant says I have a duty to follow the the rules I believe everyone else should follow. Poor Tilly the dog would be excluded from this because she can’t make rational, deliberate, moral choices.
Aristotelian Virtue-Based ethics, centering on the importance of moral growth and striking a balance between extremes, is no help to me. Aristotle was unconcerned about the consequences of actions to people, let alone to animals.
Method-Based ethics requires me to keep in touch with my “gut feelings” about animals, as long as they are informed by my reflective mind. I’m sorry, that’s singularly useless. Ah, this is better: the “Ethical Triax” simply says “Be kind”. That I can except – it is what I thought before I started reading any moral philosophy.
So, I want to be kind. Should I simply be concerned about animals’ welfare, or should I fight for them to have the right not to be enslaved, killed for human benefit, or to suffer from environmental deterioration resulting from human mismanagement. The “Animal Welfare” approach is typified by the RSPCA that accepts the human’s right to exploit animals but seeks to elevate or eliminate all “needless” suffering of animals. Philosophically, then, it’s simply “Be kind”.
But Haines asks “Why might animals have more rights than smoke detectors?” and “Why should we be more concerned for the welfare of animals more than for the welfare of tightly folded rack strata?” (Should we unfold the Alps?). Maybe we say yes because animals are conscious of their suffering. Not so easy, because according to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, animals might behave in a way that resembles a conscious being, but that doesn’t prove anything unless we know what that behaviour feels like from the inside, which apparently can’t mean anything with regard to a creature that is intrinsically incapable of discussing it. You might say the same thing applies to smoke detectors and rocks.
Other possible reasons why animals might have rights and deserve compassion, are their intelligence or their possible moral sense. But these are as problematic to establish as is their possible consciousness. These philosophical questions challenge us when we think how we tend to be more outraged by fur than leather or why we favour robins over the more intelligent magpies.
Why does the welfare of animals matter? Imagine Artificial Intelligence in machines or enhanced human brains producing a superior species. Ask yourself how they should treat us, and why.”