Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Animal Rights

Since I have made the decision to eliminate from my diet dairy components that I have enjoyed thus far into my life, it is only natural that I describe my reasons for this rather difficult choice. Stated differently, I feel the need to explicate in some detail my stand on the issue of vegetarianism/veganism as it relates to animal rights.  What is it and why is it so important? Is it a reasonable position that has  logical/rational basis or is it just a matter of personal morality? I had stated a long while ago in my column that I will write about this topic and now I think is an appropriate time to lay out my views on this subject. 


I should make it clear at the outset that neither the  arguments I shall construct here are novel nor the analogies I draw original. There are plenty of websites (that will show up in a quick search)where one can find detailed information on just about every point that appears here. Moreover, there have been some very important books published on this topic in the last four decades and some of these have had considerable impact in changing peoples' opinions on the matter.  And yet, I am writing this because I want to be very clear and definite about why I choose to believe in it. After all, the subject is hardly short of any controversy and this fact can be quickly inferred by an equal number of websites and books that challenge the basis of the entire animal rights movement. The quality of the discussion can vary- many are truly awful and infantile but few others offer a more serious critique that have made me think more carefully. I have thus heard and analyzed the views from many sides, and all the subtle shades contained therein before I arrived at my own opinion on the matter.  It is partly due to this that I shall frame some of my arguments as a virtual debate where my statements are countered by another rhetorical opponent whose arguments are based on the objections I have heard from several people. 

It is also important that I describe the scope of this discussion. First, the case I am making here is that meat-eating in contemporary society is unacceptable because it is cruel to the animals. There are many other valid reasons for avoiding meat  - improved health, less harm to the environment and eco-system, protest against horrible labor conditions in the meat industry, decrease in overall starvation in poorer countries etc. While each of these has a solid empirical and philosophical basis to it, I am not going to be discussing any of them here. Second, although I say 'meat-eating', I use the term as a general reference to how animals are abused by humans for food which includes eggs and dairy products. There are also other, equally unacceptable, ways in which animals are used in entertainments and pet industry but that shall not be the focus here in this article.  Third, I use the term "animal-rights" loosely and what I mean will become clearer as we go further but nonetheless it can become a point of some confusion because those involved in the movement take the notion to different degrees. It would be useful to remember this fact.


Before I launch into the actual arguments, I believe it would be very useful to first state what my views on vegetarianism/veganism are NOT about:
(a) Religious/Cultural: This is obvious because religions or cultural norms don't have consistency. Muslims avoid pork, Hindus avoid beef, and Jews have a specific dietary constraints encoded in kosher laws.  While all these religions have paid some attention to animal rights (most notably Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism) the question of acceptability can and should be addressed independent of any religious ideology.  
(b)You should be an animal lover: There is a very common notion- popular amongst advocates and critics- that you need to adore animals and admire them for their uniqueness in order to sympathize with the cause of animal rights. This view is dangerous because it assumes that the concern for animal welfare is based upon OUR feelings for them. That it is our patronizing mercy based upon how we relate to them that makes a case for valuing their life.  Many advocates of animal rights somehow subtly imply this themselves thereby undermining the more universal idea that inflicting pain on animals is unacceptable independent of whether these  are endearing pets or wild, hideous and repellent creatures.
(c) Humans are designed to eat only plants and eating meat is basically unhealthy:  As it stands, this statement is not scientifically accurate. While it is true that there is a strong correlation between vegan diet and good health this does NOT imply that eating moderate quantities of meat is necessarily going to clog arteries, lead to overweight, or cause other disorders. [1] Likewise, it is true that meat has a greater chance of being contaminated with infectious germs or chemicals that undermine the immunity defence of our body,  but majority of meat available in supermarkets and such is likely to be safe.
(d)Inherent value in life OR it is unethical to kill a life form: This is very problematic because it is quite an arbitrary principle that is not based on any clear foundations. More importantly, from a biological standpoint, plants have life and so do algae, bacteria, yeast and,- depending on which biologist you speak to- even viruses.  If the property of being alive, that is demonstrating the characteristics of life -growth, repair, reproduction, nutrition etc -, were given a special value one would have to extend this to all the biological life forms and clearly that is not necessary. Thus terminating life -in and of itself- is not a significant issue.
(e) Animals and humans are the same OR animals deserve the same rights as man:  Few facts can be more obvious than broad areas of differences between humans and non-human mammals, let alone other categories of species that inhabit our planet.  It would be silly to argue that animals must be given the opportunity to participate in our dysfunctional democracies or be given the promise of progressive taxation. Or provide them exact status and identification in society as the rest of us. Clearly neither is this practical nor would the animals desire it, even if they had a choice of some sort.  So when I say use the term "rights" I mean in a more restrictive sense.


This naturally leads us to the question of what is the basis of animal rights? The strongest -and arguably the only -concern that underlies this case is the question of whether our actions inflict physical pain on sentient organisms.  That forms the basis for all the arguments in favor of animal rights. Having stated it this way, the debate then reduces to an argument over the morality of such actions - those that result in suffering of living beings endowed with pain perception.


1) Nature is blind to right and wrong.:

An immediate question that may pop in your mind at this point would be my tacit assumption of some pre-ordained moral code in a "mechanical" universe that behaves according to value-neutral natural laws.  You may wonder, while pain is clearly an avoidable feeling, there is no basic principle which states that we should not be responsible for causing more of it. This line of reasoning is perfectly rational -albeit quite perverse - and yes, there is nothing in nature that informs us that this is an unethical behavior. However, at the same time,  there is nothing in nature that forbids torturing innocent human beings either. Or anything that argues in favor of human rights  or promotes individual liberty. And yet, these are the foundational aspects of modern civilization that most reasonable people are willing to agree upon.  Despite this, you may be persistent -and more cynically perverse - and claim that these human-related "values" were created in order to advance the human race and it is a rational choice rather than a moral one in that it helps to strengthen the community end ensures safety and security of the majority. To respond, I first claim that this interpretation is evidently false because the primary reaction of people  to murders or mutilation of human beings is not based on cold reasoning and assessment that such actions are damaging to the society but rather as "immoral" in a more basic sense. Naturally, this begs the question of what is meant by "basic sense" especially when I have discarded any nature-derived rules and dismissed religious arguments. I'll admit that it is fairly difficult to pin down this 'basic moral sense' in any unambiguous and objective way but instead, I will provide some counter-examples to this line of argument.[2]  If protecting one's own community/society is the most important goal, then there would no objection to exploiting other societies and benefiting from it. Retail goods being available cheaply in the US cannot be valid reason to promote sweatshops in developing countries even if- as is unfortunately the case sometimes - such practices are unregulated in those countries.  Slavery benefited the slave-owners and the  ruling elite but that is not a reason for insisting on its continuance.  Autocracy and authoritarian regimes always favor the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the masses but would you regard the actions of dictator and his cohorts as "moral" because it is done to promote the self-interest of their class?   No, it is fairly clear that the basic principles of civil liberties and human rights are based upon a sense of morality - however hard it may be to define that - and not on a rational consideration of the impact of such decisions on variables as the GDP.  

2) Animals are distinct from humans:

If we accept that respect for basic human rights is a fundamental ethical principle that must be universally enforced,  then what are the reasons for eliminating other sentient organisms from such considerations? Is it because humans can talk? Is it because we are more intelligent? Is it because we are capable of showing moral consideration that a lion in a jungle would not?  What is the special property of humans that animals lack which gives us authority to abuse them as much as we do? As can be noted, my central thesis here is not so much about changing value system of society but demanding consistency in the application of the most basic ones we cherish. 

Let me take up each distinction that is noted between humans and animals and dismiss them as valid justifications for our abusive behavior by providing appropriate counter-examples.

(i) Humans are a higher level species with abilities that are unique to them: This is unquestionably true as we can see that no other species is known to communicate as we do or have complex reasoning faculties that has led humans to discover science and develop technology that we enjoy today.  It is also true that we have a very sophisticated social setup that is uncommon amongst other species.  However, it is far from obvious that such progress gives us special privilege to treat animals in a way that would be unthinkable if the victims were fellow human beings.  If we regard intelligence as the primary trait that sets us apart from our lower species, what about those humans whose intellectual prowess are so abysmally low that they cannot carry out simple tasks.  Does it become acceptable, given their severe retardation, that we treat them violently, confine them in narrow spaces, deprive them of basic care and turn them into slave laborers for benefit of other, more advanced people?  Quite obviously, this conclusion is ridiculous.  I can use a similar argument when it comes to our capacity to talk by pointing to deaf and dumb people. Do we then turn them over to a laboratory and perform the most dastardly experiments on their bodies in order to improve the rest of human race?  Worse, there are individuals in an extremely vegetative state while remaining conscious and the extent of incapacitation makes them less able, broadly speaking, than the more advanced non-human mammals. Should we permit mutilating parts of their bodies for reasons of convenience as we do to pigs and chicken?  Again, these rhetorical questions have an unequivocal answer.

(ii) Humans are moral but animals are not:  Detractors point to the fact that the moral code we have in society is something mutual, or contractual. If I am armed but I choose not to kill someone, it is generally true that my restraint would be reciprocated by others in society. However, if I were to spare the life of a tiger in the woods while carrying a rifle, it is unlikely that this generous consideration would be reciprocated were I the one to be defenceless. The argument goes on to state that the moral framework is closed within the human society.  To address this, first observe that majority of livestock animals are not predatory. Pigs or cows are unlikely to attack humans let alone the possibility of chicken and turkey hunting us down. So, even if one were going to justify eating meat of based on this reasoning, one would have to brace oneself for more dangerous hunting trips.  Second - as I stated earlier -it is not so much the killing itself as the conditions in which animals are kept that is most objectionable as far as modern day livestock industry is concerned. Thus the more apt comparison is not a tiger mauling a person but keeping one in captivity for several years while tearing muscle by muscle and limb by limb, dismembering slowly, all done while the person is conscious. Third,at any rate,  this point is fundamentally disingenuous. We have the capacity for moral reflection and so we can take a broader view of things.  Animals are simply incapable of doing that and in that way they are like children.  It is not uncommon for toddlers to inadvertently act in a way that acutely affects someone, but those are not regarded as a violation in the same manner as that of deliberate action by a normal adult.  Animals have an instinct to protect themselves from threats and carnivores have an instinct to hunt and feed.  They have little choice over such instincts.

3) The naturalness fallacy
If our superior average intellect or our special talents as social beings does not give us the right to treat non-human animals in an abusive way, what else does?  Well, our ancestors have all eaten meat. It is likely to have been the primary source of food for a long period of time in our evolution.  Meat-eating is still the norm in most cultures in the world. So, even though we may cause undue trauma to animals in captivity, it is only reasonable that we do what we have been doing for ages.   To address this point, it may be first useful to make an important distinction in the nature of assertions, something that is usually identified in most philosophical discussions. Any claim concerning the world falls into one of two broad categories, descriptive and normative.

(a) A descriptive statement is an empirical claim about the world. It can verified by  observation, examination or simple experimentation. Canada lies  to the north of the US is a trivial example of such a statement. Stating that euthanasia is a contentious issue is most societies is a descriptive fact -it can be verified. Noting that possession and sale of marijuana is outlawed in some developed countries is a third example. Recognizing that financial recessions are known to occur from time to time in all economies is an observation about the world.

(b) Normative statement is one that claims what should be or ought to be in the world. It expresses a certain value. For example, saying that government should promote scientific literacy and eliminate superstition is a normative statement. Euthanasia should be tolerated in society is another example.  Arguing that marijuana, and most drugs, must be legalized also falls within this category. We should try to prevent or at least minimize recessions by developing policy framework that keeps the economy more stable (and not be swept away by the illusion of market self-correction) is a normative claim.

As you can see, in many of these instances, the normative stand on an issue is not identical to the descriptive details. While some of the examples I have provided may be more controversial, consider the relatively uncomplicated case of global poverty. Starvation has been a scourge of mankind throughout its  history (a descriptive fact). However, despite this strong evidence,  we have a collective responsibility to minimize it by trying to reform the production, distribution and pricing of food and other basic resources (normative statement). In a similar manner, there are several other issues where we choose to act against or prevent something that has known to occur in nature or societies over long periods of time (natural disasters, wars, infant mortality, pandemic and even extinction of species) .  It would then be a poor excuse - and very hypocritical one - to defend a specific practice on the sole basis of the observation that it has been this way all along, i.e it is "natural".  It follows then, that merely stating that homo sapien have eaten meat for most part of their history cannot be regarded as a valid justification for continuing to do so.

4) Yet another appeal to nature :
If our "natural" behavior does not constitute sufficient justification for our actions, what else can there be? How about the observation that non-human carnivores would anyway continue to hunt and kill other animals? Even if we all stop eating meat, what happens to the millions of other animals that are attacked and have their flesh ripped apart in the wild? How does our position square against fact? In response, in the first place, recall that the worst aspects of the meat industry are the appalling conditions of housing, transportation and feeding of animals rather than the slaughter itself. Carnivores pouncing on lower level organisms in the food chain and killing them is, on an average, a lot quicker than the near endless amount of intense trauma we cause to chicken and pigs kept in tiny cages covered in bruises, filth and noxious gases. If our meat-eating involved just slaughtering alone (after the animals live a life in a normal environment) , it would be an immensely more acceptable practice. Second, and I don't have exact data here,  consider the number of birds and mammals that are killed every year in the livestock industry with the total number of their deaths in the wild.  The former is a staggering 40 billion - for each year! - and it is so massive that the UN estimates that 30% of land area is devoted in one form or the other to the industry.  On the other hand, the total number of wild birds on the planet is estimated to be about 100-200 million and I imagine the number of mammals to be about the same. Of these the numbers that are attacked and killed during the lifetime would be about a quarter or less. Put together, one can be fairly certain that less than 1 billion mammals/birds are falling prey to carnivores/omnivores in the wild. (What about insects...?)  Third, it is unreasonable to point to other instances of suffering in Nature to justify us torturing and causing more of the same (the descriptive-normative distinction again). It is like saying that yes, there is extreme malnutrition and hunger all over the world - it is only "natural" - and so I won't do anything to help someone I see starving. Finally,  it is absurd to compare ourselves with animals in this context.  We don't take all our hints for a good life from animals do we?  Despite the contrivance of evolutionary psychologists, and to a lesser degree, anthropologists, in explaining our behavior based on our more bestial ancestors, or the glib and wholly unscientific talk of "unnatural" suppression of animal instincts that appears in popular culture and the grotesquely misinterpreted catchphrase "survival of the fittest" - or its sophomoric variant "greed is good" or other ludicrous Randian-esque doctrines -  we obviously don't follow  rules of the jungle. 

5) Challenging the pain hypothesis :

Critics often wonder how animal rights activists are so dogmatic in their insistence that pigs feel pain while wheat crops don't. Certainly plants are living organisms, and consequently the state of being alive and dead applies equally well to them, but how do we know they don't feel pain? The most accurate answer to this is yes, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY of PROVING that cows and turkeys are undergoing enormous physical stress if you shear off their legs whereas pulling a twig from a tree does not affect it in any way. But, at the same time, there is NO WAY of PROVING that prisoners held under indefinite detention in American military bases overseas are capable of feeling pain. Equivalently, there is no way to prove that Muslims feel pain in much the same way that Jews do.  I am being completely serious here. The sensation  of pain - as opposed to the origin, symptoms and effects of pain - is a mental state and mental states cannot be detected in any way.  If you were to be bleeding, I can only INFER that you are experiencing pain -the bleeding itself or the  cut vessels or the damaged tissue and other observable features does NOT represent pain- and this inference comes from imagining my own reaction in a similar situation.  In other words, knowledge of pain to anyone other than oneself is a purely inferential thing and it cannot be rigorously proved. And I recognize that you have a similar nervous system as I do - the brain, spinal chord, nerve endings, nociceptors etc - and I put things together and conclude that you ought to feel pain. In much the same way, mammals and birds not only exhibit similar external behavioral symptoms when trapped in adverse conditions, but also have anatomically similar structure which enables us to infer - with as much (or as little) accuracy as I did when you bled - that they feel pain. On the other hand, plants don't have a nervous system and hence incapable of sensory perception whatsoever. Is it possible there are other mechanisms by which they feel pain, mechanisms that have different system? Highly unlikely. We have a tremendous level of understanding about the structure, functioning, survival and development of plants  -photosynthesis, transportation of nutrients, reproduction, evolution - and had there been an additional component which enabled plants to experience pain, we would almost certainly have discovered it by now.  Another reason to assume plants don't feel pain comes from observing that plants are stationary. Pain developed, along the evolutionary road in advanced organisms, as a survival tactic -to instinctively run away from adverse conditions. However since plants are immobilized, pain as such would not confer any such evolutionary advantage and so it is unlikely to have taken root in them. Still, even if we accept that we cannot determine whether plants can or cant feel pain, that does not give us reason to be cruel to organisms that we know for sure feel pain.   Also even if rice and corn crops were to experience pain, it would still be more humane to eat them directly because of the inefficiency associated with feeding that to livestock and eating the animals. [3]

6) More Perversion
A meaningful question that may arise at this juncture is the nature of classification of living organisms in terms of their ability to experience pain. This is a very pertinent point because the entire thesis here rests on the premise that animals are sentient and hence ought to be treated in a more humane way. The common refrain from opponents is the rhetorical barrage of mock-questions: Is mosquito sentient? Can bacteria and amoeba feel pain? How about E coli?  These questions are intended, quite obviously, to challenge the entire presumption(s) on which the animal welfare claims rest. It is essential to emphasize that the case for animal welfare of those organisms whose sentience is substantiated with solid evidence -mammals and birds, for example- is independent of the precise boundary -if there is one at all - between the sentience and lack of it in the spectrum of animals ranked accordingly. The justification for this, yet again, is that the the possibility that certain mid-level organisms - insects -may feel pain and our corresponding inability to adequately prevent harm done to them gives us no reason to brutalize creatures that certainly feel pain. Addressing the question more directly though, the current scientific consensus holds that fish feel pain and lobsters and shrimps most likely do too. Insects are believed to be insensitive primarily because of the nature of their nervous system and the behavioral responses to negative stimulus. Protozoans, amoeba and fungi are as likely to be as sentient as pine trees.

I have thus far stated, and eventually discarded, most of the direct objections raised against the cause of animal welfare with respect to meat-eating. While I am sure there a few I have not considered, there are other, somewhat unrelated issues, misconceptions chiefly, concerning vegetarianism. Almost invariably, any discussion on this is going to elicit a refrain "But our body needs protein" or "Vegetarian diet cannot provide all the required nutrition"  or with more certainty "I was a vegan for a few years but that made me tired and sick during most of time. My doctor seriously advised me to go back to eating meat".  These and other such observations  - and flawed inferences- will not be dealt with here. There is an enormous volume of scientific evidence to back up the sufficiency and healthfulness of a vegan/vegetarian diet (no need to remind me of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D). I don't need to mention celebrity athletes to prove my point, but those inclined to believe in such "evidences" can look it up elsewhere.  Of course, other compelling arguments like "Hitler was a vegetarian and so what does that say about vegetarians?!!!" are beyond me to comprehend and straighten out.

It may not be out of the line here to post some videos exposing the cruelty to animals in factory farms.  After all, aside from all the arguments I have mentioned, the visceral experience of watching such horrendous acts has its own power. Many have seen this at some point or the other but it does not hurt to remind what precisely happens to animals in feedlots, crates, during transportation and slaughter.

On the disconnect between kosher laws and reality:

The situation in pig farms:

Look for more here.

[1] Here is an interesting essay on this issue where the author argues that humans are more similar to herbivores anatomically and physiologically than to omnivores, i.e we are behavioral rather than structural omnivores.
[2]This is a basic assumption, and if one is unwilling to accept it, then, consistent with the rejection of such a foundational premise,one must not object to child molestation, torture and other abuses.
[3] http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug97/livestock.hrs.html