Animal Fair, Animal Foul

I recently wrote a “three for thought” piece for The Globe and Mail, discussing three books about the ethical status of animals. It seems to have now disappeared behind a paywall, so here it is again.

Proponents of Animal welfare has a new hero in Tre Smith. Smith, as everyone knows, is the Toronto Humane Society officer who found an unconscious Rottweiler inside a sweltering SUV and smashed his way inside to save its life. After Smith handcuffed the dog’s owner to the vehicle and left to seek veterinary attention, the shackled man was attacked by angry animal-lovers. Smith has been legitimately criticized for leaving the dog’s owner in such a vulnerable position. What is noteworthy, however, is that even Smith’s sharpest critics say he was right to smash the window and save the dog.

It was not always this way. Prior to the 19th century, no one considered animal suffering important enough to commission inspectors to seek it out, let alone destroy property to stop it. The moral status of animals has risen over time, and many practices that were once common, such as the dog fights Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was recently convicted for organizing, are no longer tolerated. Should this trend be encouraged? If so, how much? There is now widespread concern for cats and dogs, but what about the animals we encounter in zoos and rodeos, or even slaughterhouses? To what degree, if at all, do we have an obligation to concern ourselves with the suffering of animals that are not our pets?

The most influential book on these questions is also one of the most controversial. Animal Liberation (New York Review, 1975), by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, has sold over 600,000 copies in English and been translated into 17 languages. Singer’s argument is based on the idea that when we are morally deliberating over some course of action, we need to give equal weight to the interests of all the parties involved. To justify different standards of treatment, we need to show that one party has an overriding interest the other does not.

Applied to animals, this way of thinking captures two ideas that are pure common sense. One is that there are many entitlements only humans should have. Granting chickens the right to vote makes no sense, because they lack the cognitive abilities required to do so, and so have no recognizable interest in casting a ballot. Singer would also agree with the conventional view that Smith was right to break the glass. The interest of the owner, a few hundred dollars to replace the window, was clearly outweighed by the dog’s interest in avoiding a painful death.

Singer’s controversial side comes out when he applies the equal consideration idea to all our dealings with animals. According to Singer, many of the things we do to animals, including hunt them for sport or confine them in zoos, serve little purpose other than entertainment, and so cannot justify the confinement or harm involved. Singer also says we have a moral responsibility to avoid meat, given the wide availability of healthy vegetarian alternatives.

One response to Singer is to say that equal consideration applies only to people. This approach usually involves identifying some specifically human attribute, such as language or the capacity to engage in moral reasoning, as the real basis of moral worth. But an implication of this view is that dogs in hot SUVs can be left to die—which many people clearly reject. Another problem is that there are human beings, such as the severely retarded, who cannot speak or deliberate over morality. Any threshold restrictive enough to exclude animals inevitable leaves out some people as well.

Such considerations highlight the stubborn logic of Singer’s position, which has now inspired many other people to write their own books on animal protection (a better term for “animal rights,” as many animal advocates do not employ the idea of rights). As a genre these books are highly repetitive, and usually offer arguments only slightly different from Singer’s. An important exception however is Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St Martin’s, 2002), by Matthew Scully.

Scully is a conservative Christian who used to make his living writing speeches for George W. Bush (if you can call that living!). Surprisingly, his book has inspired many social conservatives to come out against factory farming. Scully’s religious rhetoric will touch a cord with Christian readers, but one need not be a believer to appreciate his book. Unlike Singer, Scully endorses medical research involving animals (surely a strength of his position). Scully is also a gifted writer, and his chapters on big-money safari hunters, the whaling industry and modern meat production are masterpieces of non-fiction prose. On a stylistic level, Dominion is the best book on animal protection yet to appear in English.

An ethical interest in animals often leads to an interest in vegetarianism. Unfortunately, the vegetarian cookbook industry seems to be in the permanent grip of new-age hippies and Hare Krishnas. Anyone turned off by such associations should seek out How It All Vegan (Arsenal Pulp, 1999), by Canadian authors Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer. Refreshingly, they do not discuss Chakras, or offer instructions on how to become a practicing druid. Barnard and Kramer rather adopt a down to earth approach, and focus on everyday meals someone might actually eat. The clarity and simplicity is no doubt why How It All Vegan has sold 150,000 copies, won several awards and begotten two sequels. Much like Singer and Scully, Barnard and Kramer remind us of that there are ways to save animals that do not require breaking into cars.

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